Leaning Into Death: An Alternative Reading of Acts 2.42-47

buddha death

Preaching from Acts 2 this Eastertide, it dawned on me this familiar passage was saying something much simpler, yet more profound, than providing fodder for theological arguments between Pentecostals and, well, every other Christian.

The early portion of this chapter (tongues of fire, upper room, etc.), gets most of the attention in the chapter, and rightly so.  It’s bizarre, unusual, and produces a proclamation that had never happened before.

In Chapter 1, Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples go to Jerusalem (to the Upper Room) to wait, for something unaware.  Chapter 2 continues the action answering the proverbial, “so what now?  If Jesus isn’t here, what happens and where are we going?”  The tongues of fire episode is the first part of the answer.

But the tongues of fire is the easiest part of the answer.

I mean, who doesn’t like a religious experience?  Plenty of people thrive on experience, feelings, euphoric highs that charge our life.  We have all been witness to the power of religious experience, perhaps even experiencing something religious ourselves.  The two fastest growing segments of Christianity in the world are the two that offer an experience, a doing, with God: Pentecostalism and Catholicism.

Ok, so you’re not religious and don’t like that analogy?  Do you like sex, the experience of sex?  Or is it better to think and talk about sex as opposed to having sex?

Do you enjoy the experience of cheering for your favorite sports team, cheering for your child, experiencing joy?  If you’d rather go to Disney World than talk about it, you prefer experience because participating in something powerful makes you feel.

Thus, we understand how powerful, and preferable, great experiences are.  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that we humans LOVE to experience FEELINGS.

It is little wonder Acts 2 and an experience of the Holy Spirit gains the traction it does.  Its powerful, it’s refreshing, it’s renewing.

Yet, the early portion of Acts 2 is not the end game.  The end game begins when the experience of the first part of this chapter takes a form of life, a form of life in Acts 2.42-47 that is a daunting reminder/request.

Acts 2.42-47 is a troublesome text that offers a vignette of life in the early church while simultaneously making the rest of us nervous at the consequences.  It reads:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

There’s just something about the implication that we should fellowship, commit ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, pray, break bread and praise God that seems like too much work.  And lest we get too comfortable, let’s not forget this idea of “holding all things in common and selling our possessions” in order to provide for those who have need that makes us spiritually wriggle and physically convulse.

While this list seems odd to us, it is not uncommon for Luke to give us these summary statements about life in the early church, brief portraitures of how they organized their communal living.  He does so in several places throughout Acts, such as chapters 4, 6 and 9.

In so doing, Luke is not only telling us how the early church lived, but he is gently nudging us to go and do likewise.

The trouble with these summaries, however, is that they are often lifted out of the chapters in which they occur.  These summaries, like Paul’s lists of “dos and don’ts” that keep people out of heaven, are summarily read and rehearsed with little regard to the stories preceding and following them.

While debates about religious experience and the political ideology of Acts 2 are intriguing, I have a different question: Why does this summary occur here, in this part of the Acts 2?  What larger narrative is at work behind this summary?  And why does the Lectionary ask us to read this text at this point in the Easter Season?

The problem with reading Acts chapter 2 is that it is read as two separate texts.  We have a 2.0 and a 2.1 version: a Pentecostal experience and a purview into life in the early church.  We preach an experience OR we preach a political obligation.  Rarely do we seek the coherence of this chapter.

Simply put, Acts 2.42-47 is impossible apart from Pentecost.  This is a way of life that cannot be lived apart from the Spirit.  The episodes of this chapter are episodes but they must remain a singular chapter, parts of a larger whole.  But let’s not stop there.

Acts 2.42-47 cannot happen apart from the Resurrection in Luke!  The Resurrection of Jesus in Luke, the Ascension of Jesus in Acts 1, and the Giving of the Spirit in Acts 2 are three stages of a singular event in which Jesus is glorified and given back to creation.

If Christ be not raised, then living in the kind of community discussed in Acts 2 is laughable.  If Christ be not ascended, then there is no giving of his presence to the Church.  If there is no giving of the Spirit, there are no tongues of fire, no empowered proclamation, and no Church.

Therefore Acts 2 is part of our Easter readings.  At first blush, one would surmise we should read Acts 2 during the season of Pentecost, but if we understand this larger movement we see that Acts 2 is not describing a Pentecostal community; it is describing an Easter community empowered through Pentecost.

It is because Jesus is raised, and the end of time marked by the outpouring of the Spirit, that those who believe on Jesus are compelled to live a life in which they sell their things, hold all things in common, break bread together, worship, and commit themselves to the apostles teaching.

Easter has empowered this early group of believers to not hold so tightly to life and empowered them to grasp more tightly to one another.

In a world without Easter, we cling to our life.  In a world with Easter, we grasp our death, and through death find life.

The early church knew how to grasp their death.  They understood it to such a degree that they lived their life toward death, leaning into it.  They leaned into to such a degree that they held loosely to all that was theirs and committed themselves to one another, anticipating that the end that had started in the Resurrection of Jesus, and been confirmed in the giving of the Holy Spirit, would overtake them all soon.

The early church took Joel 2.28 seriously,

“After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions.”

Here is the kicker: only people who are convinced that in Jesus’ Resurrection the end has begun can live according to Acts 2.42-47.  Only people who have received tongues of fire to proclaim the ridiculous message that Jesus is raised and that we can share in his resurrection can live as Acts suggests.

Moving one step further, people who believe this, and have experienced the outpouring of the Spirit, can do no other than live as Acts 2 suggests because they understand they are living toward death, living toward the end that is God.  People who know the end is near have no time to be consumed with grasping to a life they will lose so they lose the life they have.  The Apostle Paul insinuated something similar when he proclaims, “I am crucified with Christ.”

In the debate between paradox or dialectic, in this instance, we side with paradox.

One may believe this end will come in the clouds with Christ, or believe it comes at the time of our own death, either way, we must lean in toward the end.  This is what the early church does and why Acts 2.42-47 is odd; it’s a way of life that doesn’t grasp life.

I call this a hermeneutic of loss, a hermeneutic grounded in the death of Jesus and the loss of the world.

As such, Acts 2.42-47 really functions as more of a reminder of what matters than a dictum to be followed.  The texts job isn’t to exacerbate our failings, but to remind us that this is how people live who live toward the end: People who believe the end is now in the Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Holy Spirit of Christ.  When we forget life is found in death, we live life for life-sake and when death comes we wish we’d lived toward death, because we will regret living as if the end wouldn’t happen.

But this reading shouldn’t come a surprise.

I have never known a hermeneutic of loss, or read scripture as texts toward death, until I lost my own father nearly 12 weeks ago.  After suddenly losing him, scripture has just as suddenly become a new land.  I see in it things hidden before; I feel in it things I never knew to feel.  Eerily, parts scripture make more sense now because it too was born out of a series of traumas that led to life in/through loss.

After my father’s death, all I wanted to do was do these things in Acts 2 with him.  I wanted to sit in his Sunday School class one more time, hearing the apostles teaching.  I wanted to eat with him again, break bread.  I wanted to fellowship more, visit his house after work.  I wanted to pray for him, with him, share in the simple pleasure of hearing him pray one more time before dinner.  I wanted to be thankful more, enjoy life more, not let the trivial things of life irritate me when I was around him.

When he died, he left behind all the things he loved and enjoyed.  His family, his hobbies, his business: it is all still here.  Yet, my father lived as one who never held too tightly to these things.  He left them behind, he knew he would, so he spent his days doing as much of Acts 2 as he could.  If you knew him, you lived Acts 2 with him as well.

Acts 2 reminds us that at the end of our days, either at the appearance of Christ in the Clouds, or in the face of death when it comes for us, we will not regret anything except that we had lived more like the picture given to us in Acts 2.42-47.

My suggestion?

Discover the resurrection of Jesus.  Discover death.  Lean into it.  Find life.  Find Freedom.

Death asks Questions. Ecclesiastes Answers.

ecclesiastes whats the point

Sudden, premature, Death is the great equalizer.   Both for those who die and those they leave behind.

For those who die, suddenly, everything they were, or weren’t, did, or didn’t do, is finished.  Their dreams, their opinions, their loves, their hates, their things and their family, all stay behind.  The prince and the pauper meet the same fate.  None is greater than the other and the earth swallows both. 

For those who live, suddenly, everything that meant something now means less.  The world stops.  Priorities change.  Things that didn’t mean so much, like small conversations, hugs, “I appreciate yous” or the game of golf you skipped for work…now take precedent over work, money, or any problem you thought mattered before your loved one passed away. 

Death makes us all equal and it equalizes all things.  It crudely displays the valueless nature of our system of values and the value of things we once took for granted.

Here, at the arrival of my father’s death, two main questions began to emerge. 

First, how can something this unjust happen to someone who didn’t deserve this fate now, given all the work he still had to do?  How can I process such an unjust death?  It simply isn’t just and there are no theological jumping jacks that can make it so. 

My dad had no vices, relatively healthy, in good shape, and no medical history of cardiac issues.  The very thing we never thought would kill him did, while people who abuse their bodies, cannot move due to obesity, and are walking diabetic laboratories get more time on earth. 

My father’s death is a miscarriage of cosmic justice.

Some people say it’s because God has timing that we can’t understand.  I heard this from many folks during the weeks following his death.

Me?  I call that stupid.  If it sounds stupid when you say it, it probably is. 

God had nothing to do with my dad dying.  He was human and had an unfortunate internal chemistry that led to a tragic event.  These other people that are alive and shouldn’t be?  These walking diabetic laboratories or people who have abused their bodies with vices for decades…these people?  They are just lucky.  Somehow, I don’t think God kills the good ones and leaves the negligent ones as if to reward their abuse of creation. 

And if God does do that?  Well, when I get to the pearly gates I’ll say “thanks but no thanks” because I couldn’t stand to be around a being that capricious for eternity.  When Ecclesiastes tells us that it rains on the just and the unjust that is simply what it is.  There is no reason for it.  Its life, even in a world created by God.

The second question I asked, however, was concerning meaning.  It is almost laughable how death turned me back toward those foundational questions of religion and philosophy: What is the meaning of life and what is my role in it?  Furthermore, how do I know my answer to these questions is true once given?

Before my dad passed, I thought I knew the meaning of life; I thought I could give someone a satisfactory answer to the question if they’d asked.  Afterward…immediately afterward?  I was left without a good answer.  What meaning is there?  Where is meaning to be found if in an instant death can rupture creation and render all meaning endowed with life meaningless?  We give the world meaning by what we invest in and love, yet all our investment and love can come to an abrupt end without warning!  In an instant, the meaning maker that is the human being can be made meaningless.

Through my father’s death I came face to face with the meaninglessness of meaning.  When he died, suddenly, the meaning I had endowed with work and the problems at work were whisked away. The meaning I had ascribed to my education, my fitness, my calling, my professional life, etc., all mattered no more than a pile of manure.  Human resource problems, customer complaints, goals for the new year, my to do list for the week, papers I wanted to write, pursuing my Doctorate of Ministry, reading any books, caring about ministry, having fun, etc., etc., it all disappeared and didn’t matter. 

Everything that I thought meant something…now, meant nothing, thus leaving me to ask, “Did it all mean anything to begin with then?”

I know, I know, some people will say this is grief, depression, the low water mark of dealing with loss.  To an extent, I agree. 

However, as I have now had nearly 8 weeks to contemplate the sudden death of my father, I have come to realize that it is not simply his sudden departure that makes me feel this way.  It’s not that my melancholy leads me to these conclusions.  Rather, it is the revelation that just as he died, so could I, and without notice, and in that moment, all the things I am doing become meaningless.  All my cares, worries, , loves and accomplishments can be just as suddenly buried…and within months or years my family will move on without me…living.  Within days, most of the general public will no longer care I am dead.  

To pass away is to be dead to the world, our terminal condition revealed for what it is.

This is what death is: it is the cessation of existence in time, the loss of consciousness, the death of what makes us an “I.”  To echo Robert Jenson here, to think otherwise is to cheat and think death as not death…in which case it isn’t really death we’re thinking and I’m not sure what we are thinking about death if we don’t truly think of it as being dead.

This is what makes the ant hill of human civilization and society meaningless: that all our striving and loving all ends the same and could do so without a warning. 

How does one get excited about anything knowing this Grim Reaper lingers so close, even closer than those of us in our youth care to imagine?  How can one invest time reading complex theory or engaging in banal political or theological discourse knowing that none of that can change the place we are all going?  How can we be stupidly consumed with sports and entertainment when it all mounts to nothing more than a distraction of our pending death?  It’s as if we are simply wasting our time to simply pass the time until it is our time.

As I have pondered both these questions (the injustice of my father’s death and the meaninglessness of life), I have found myself in Ecclesiastes.  Like the Psalter, prior to my father’s passing, Ecclesiastes was a book to be studied, something to be understood with the mind, not felt with the heart.  I could ascend to what the author says by simply knowing what the words and phrases meant…yet after this tragedy I now realize I didn’t know then what I know now.  Now, I get it. 

Myself and the Preacher are blood brothers. 

We all know the famous phrase the Preacher uses, “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.”  The message is simple:  one day we will die and all our toil is for naught.  Everything turns out to be as a vapor, here for a moment, and then gone.  Human life is no exception. 

There is no better time to read Ecclesiastes than after a tragic loss because the Preacher is saying what many of us our thinking, and thankfully, his piety doesn’t keep him from saying it or our forefathers from making it Scripture.  

Thus, as I revisited him I began to know for the first time what he was saying and I began asking him, “Then why do anything?  If all is vanity, why act at all?”

Then, I came to chapter 9.  He paints us this bleak picture:

For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.2 It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. 4 For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. 6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.”

In this passage, the preacher and I are speaking the same language.  I get it.  This makes complete sense.  In the face of complete hopelessness there is simply more hopelessness, especially with death the fate of all, the fate of the one who tries their hardest and for the biggest slacker on the planet.  For the Holy man and the indulgent sinner.

What I find most amusing is that one of the most famous passage in Ecclesiastes, the kind of verse that make its way on desk ornamentations and in Pathway Bookstore pictures, Ecclesiastes 9:10, isn’t near as cute as it seems.  In an apparent betrayal of how it is used, however, we find the answer to complete meaninglessness and vanity.

9.10 reads, “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.”  This is usually where the verse stops and we like to use it as encouragement to do our best for God, you know, gird up that Protestant work ethic and work hard.  If God wants anything, it’s a hard worker.

In fact, when I had shared about how sudden death had made life purposeless and meaningless, I was told by one person, “well, that’s one way to look at it.  The other way is to see that life is given meaning by doing everything for God.”  I get it.  I understand the sentiment and why you need to tell yourself that…but that didn’t suffice for me.  It didn’t sit well with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes either.  I needed an earthier answer. 

Why should you do with all your might everything your hands find to do?

 The answer is in the second half of 9.10, “for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.” 

No wonder the whole verse isn’t sold at Pathway.  Verses 11-12 further impress the message:

I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all. 12 Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them.

When read in context, the flowery passage of doing with all your might what your hands find has a very dark connotation: You will one day die and then you can do nothing.  Further, even if you do heed the advice of 9.10 it really doesn’t matter, for the battle does not always go to the one who does it with all their might.  Life is fleeting.  Random evils overtake us all.  Use your hands while they can be used because your righteous life will end just an evil life.

My father did not know he was going to die.  I suspect he never knew what happened to him.  When he stood before God he was probably as shocked as anyone to find himself there.  He was hit so quickly by an unknown force he could do nothing to stop it.  Like Ecclesiastes says, “Man does not know his time…time and chance overtake them all.” 

The night my father died he was that fish caught in a net, unsuspecting, yet still caught.  Living life, swimming, yet death was lurking in the shadows.

Where is meaning in this?  Why care?  Why go on?  Why learn, why act, why be, when Ecclesiastes (and life itself!) teaches us that righteous men and evil men have the same fate…and the just are done unjustly while the unjust are dealt justice?

Why?  Ecclesiastes answers: Because to not live, to not do with all your might what your hands finds to do, is to already be dead.  We are alive.  We are creatures.  We must do with our bodies the most that we can because one day our bodies will do nothing.  We should live because we are alive.  There is plenty of time to do nothing when we are dead. 

Our doing is our protest against death.

Yes, we are stuck in a universe that is random.  We are blips on the universal screen, here only momentarily, yet we are here.  We are alive.  We are not uncreated but God thought it worthwhile to create even if every created thing also has a created end.  For only something alive can “fear God and keep his commandments.” (12.13)

Scripture says that death is the final foe; it is not a friend.  It is not something we should run toward but should deny as long as possible by engaging in life vigorously and unabashedly. 

I know many of us look for grandiose answers to our simple questions, but sometimes, the answer is just as simple: Live now for when you are dead there will be no activity.  Embrace life while you can embrace it.

There is no feeling like suddenly losing a loved one without any preparation.  It is a special kind of hell.  I never understood how a tragic event can suddenly render the world obsolete until now.

Ironically, however, in losing one world I have gained another.  I have been given a new love for my family.  I deeply hurt over the loss of my dad and I hate that he is not here.  I literally hate it.  I still go back and forth between acceptance and denial.  Waves of grief still hit when I think of all he’ll miss, of moments when I want to talk to him, of time I wish I had been a better son.  I hate that I did not get to say goodbye. 

But now, I cherish my family more.  I hug them more.  I kiss my kid’s goodnight more often (even though a couple are 11).  I let my 2-year-old girl drag me around the house and play silly games that I really don’t have time to play because I really don’t have the time to not play with her.  I am more kind to people.  For the few men in my life that are my best friends, we tell one another we love each more frequently.  I am not as angry and frustrated with work as I had been before his death even though work has now become more daunting.  I am reprioritizing my life around what I value the most when all values lose value.  I am making an effort to be more loving, more empathetic, more understanding.  With the help of God, I am trying to be an incarnation of love to those around me and I am trying to give myself to others, my friends and my family, because one day I will be dead.  I am trying to live as if tomorrow will not happen…and if it doesn’t I want to leave it all on the field, so to speak.

I am trying to do with all my might what my hands find to do because that is all I can do as a creature and as one that with each moment alive must tell death, “not yet.”

 

 

 

Gutless Grieving: Taking Lamentations Seriously

lamentations

Today, I have been fatherless for one month. 

 

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my father dying of heart attack (no family history of them), suddenly leaving us without any opportunity to say “goodbye,” speak final words of love or simply say “thank you” for being a great father, a wonderful granddad to my kids. 

Just as I did not choose my father at birth, and I could not speak to him as the newborn he held, so he left this world with me unable to look him in the eye, hug him, and tell him I love him.  In birth, and in death, I had no choices with him.

 

His life was jerked out of ours without warning leaving a new, albeit strangely desolate creation, in its place. 

 

Being unprepared for his departure, I immediately felt a range of emotions which vacillated between anger, sorrow, disbelief, and regret to name a few.  I have felt things in my core I didn’t know was humanly possible and my entire body has ached from the loss, intellect being united with emotion and biology.  I have moaned, and wept, and shouted.  I have sat at my father’s desk, in his chair, and held my heart in my hands.  

 

Even a month after his death, standing in my mom’s kitchen Saturday night, I broke down as if it was February 27 all over again. 

 

I have entered lament.  Not by choice or by desire, but by accidental necessity.

 

For comfort, I turned to my faith.  I didn’t turn, however, to the book of Revelation that promises “streets of gold” or the Letters of Paul that reminds us “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord.”  I didn’t turn there first because to do so is to not understand that death is death…and I am experiencing death.  When we skip to some “ever after” we neglect the reality that death is a cessation of brain activity and consciousness.  To be dead is to enter a state wherein the faculties that give us life have left us, hence, we are dead.  These faculties are not carried with us into some undead state; they die with us and what happens after that is up to God.

 

I am living death, sudden death, and to think death as “not really death” is a cop out. 

 

So I turned to the places where God’s people are honest: Pslams and Lamentations.

 

 I turned here because I knew in these books the people of God didn’t gloss over their anger, hurt, destruction, loss, or fear with promises of a better eternity.  In these pages, people are honest and they say things “good Christians” aren’t supposed to say. 

 

Can it get any more real than Lamentations 4.10?  “The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.” 

 

Sure, the Lamenter blames this on the wrath induced disobedience of Zion, but does that really solve the problem that God almighty, who had power to stop this, allowed it to happen to teach his people a lesson?  God would rather his children cannibalize their children to teach them a moral lesson?  Really?

 

So we find honestly horrific things in Lamentations, confessions that became Inspired Scripture and were kept in our Bibles for a reason.

 

In turning to Psalms and Lamentations, however, I discovered that until I had felt loss to the core of my being, displacement from my world, a rupture of God’s goodness to me, that I had never understood the Psalter or Lamentations.  They didn’t read or sound the same after my father’s passing.  I was no longer reading them as an academic or a preacher that needed a sermon; I was reading them as one that felt their words.

 

The Psalms and Lamentations weren’t, and are not, simply informing me; They are praying for me when I am speechless.  They are speaking on my behalf the admixture of anger, complaint and praise that often live uncomfortably together. 

 

They allow me to be honest with God and myself…and they allow me to see death for what it is: death.

 

Only when we realize what deep crap we are in can we really lament as scripture does.  Seeing death as a not death cheapens tragedy and it cheapens the part of our Bibles when God’s people could do no other but sit on the earth under the covering of sackcloth and heap the ashes they would eventually become on their heads.  Their tears being consumed by the dust.

 

If we really think it’s going to turn out “ok” on the other side, then why even lament?  It’s just stupid and a waste of energy.  Lament comes from a place that is deeply human as we react to something that isn’t “ok,” that has taken creation and uncreated it. 

 

Until we have experienced uncreation we probably have no idea what it means to lament because the lament is not something we choose.  It chooses us.  

 

Therefore, many people refrain from seeing the honesty in the Psalter and perhaps ignore Lamentations and Ecclesiastes altogether.  Many simply cannot relate to the horror of its confessions.  Many people are raised to deny their human reactions and never question God.  They are taught to think God has a plan and every event of our lives is part of that plan; who are we to question the plan?  They are taught that while their salvation may not be predestined, their lives certainly are.

 

If I have heard it once this past month, I have heard it a thousand times, “we can’t understand God’s way.” 

 

This line of thinking is absurd because it implies that God’s ways are nonsense (or at least above our sense which is the same thing since sense is a human idea to begin with) and if I know anything about God it is that God is not in the business of nonsense.  The very bible we quote begins with a book called Genesis in which creation is the goal.  God is not an uncreative God.  You cannot call uncreation creation any more than you can call sin virtue.  To think that what we call bad, God calls good, or vice versa, is to enter the same complaint of St. Augustine “how then can we know anything of God at all if what is good is not good and what is bad is not bad?”  It renders our speech meaningless.

 

Such a faith doesn’t make any sense and I wonder why we open our mouths at all if that is the case.

 

Lamentations and the Psalter, however, do not fall into this trap.  They are expressive.  They are honest.  They pray deep groanings of the human spirit and they do so with the authority of inspiration.  They also authorize us to speak to God similarly.  We do not have to gloss our feelings or dismiss our hurt; a being by the very name “God” has the capacity to hear whatever we say and not feel threatened by such “impiety.” 

 

In a time in which I never knew I would need scripture to be so honest, Lamentations and the Psalter have been my comfort even as they rehearse my pain.  

 

I confess, however, the sudden loss of my father most likely is nothing compared to a foreign army killing my relatives, razing my home, raping my daughter and forcing my wife to boil our children out of hunger.  That is a level of hell I never want to experience…but in describing that hell the Lamentations have given me liberty to live in the one in which I find myself. 

 

In the process, it has taught me that some of us will  never find grief as the Lamenter.  Our losses will be normal.  We will say goodbye to loved ones in appropriate ways, we will leave behind homes via our choosing, our families will never be impacted by suicide, rape, murder, or the sudden death of a father, mother, child, we only just had lunch with. 

 

Some of us will never deal with these things…and perhaps, never need Lamentations. 

 

But for those of us who have felt our lives jerked out of our lives, our lives ruptured instantly and our bodies wanting to bend over and hurl uncontrollably…the good news of Lamentations is that you are not alone.  God has given us the prayers to speak the unspeakable, to carry our sorrow, to embody our grief.

 

God does not expect us to pretend death isn’t death and tragedy isn’t tragedy.  We are not doomed to gutless grieving, a grief that isn’t really a grief.  Rather, we are taught through scripture that there are moments in our lives when praise and thanks take a back seat to anger, complaint and lament. 

 

And that is ok…because when all we can do is lament at least we are still being honest with God.  And that is still a form of worship.

 

A Prayer of Lament &  Forgiveness 


How Lonely sits the city where silence now resides 

The doorways are clean and empty, the water basins full 

Yet, there are no ripples in the water 

No footprints in the walkways 

The corridors are silent- only filled with the tears of lament 

The joy of my heart has ceased, our dancing has been turned to mourning (Lamentations 5.15)

My eyes fail because of tears, my spirit is greatly troubled

My heart is poured out on the earth because of the destruction of my home  (Lamentations 2.11)

Oh Lord, forgive us for taking this place for granted

For abusing our life with nonsense and frivolity 

Forgive us for being so sure of our life 

Forgive us for not loving one another as we should 

Shame us for our stupid arguments and selfish spirits 

For dwelling on problems rather than love 

Forgive us for valuing things over people 

Forgive us of our laziness toward one another and your world 

Forgive us for not loving you by loving to the fullest those whom you have given us 

Forgive us for not seeing our families as grace, as gift 

The gift is now gone; it is no more

You have given, You have loved

Our Father loved us as you loved us, he loved us as you loved the world 

Forgive us for thinking the city would be filled with laughter forever 

My soul has been rejected from peace. I have forgotten happiness

So I say my strength has perished and so has my hope from the Lord (Lamentations 3.17-18)

He has walled me in so that I cannot go out, He has made my chain heavy (Lamentations 3.7)

O God, we have taken our breath for granted

We have worshipped at the idol of invincibility 

We were asleep – we are awake – to an empty city

Our Father is gone, He is with you 

Remember what has befallen us, Look and see our reproach! (Lamentations 5.1a)

Create in us a new heart and purge us of our filthy presumptions 

Our haughty unloving selves 

Do not hide your ear from my prayer for relief (Lamentations 3.56)

Amen. 

NO! You haven’t been here: The Singularity of Grieving Loss

master-a-grief

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Experiencing the death of a loved one is not fact to be stated, a proposition that is an absolute truth.  That a loved one has died IS a fact; that one has experienced the grief of the death is not a fact; it is a subjective experience unavailable to all people except the one in grief.

It is not an experience that is shared or something with which one can empathize.  It is unique, personal, and subjective because it is larger than the fact of its happening; it taps into the recesses of the human experience that cannot be harnessed by our words or shared.

One may have in fact lost a father, a husband, a child, a friend, but the proposition “I lost my husband too” is simply that; it is a statement of fact, not a statement of truth because truth lies in experiencing the fact that was stated.  Facts have no value.  They just are.  They do not denote a common experience; they denote an event.  Since facts have no value facts do not denote the meaning of life.  Real life, what we hold dear, what we care about, resides outside the facts.  Ludwig Wittgenstein beautifully portrays this when he writes:

“The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world, everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value — and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.  What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental.  It must lie outside the world.” (Tractatus 6.4)

Just because a fact has happened to us does not imply that we then know what that fact means for another.

Take a sunset as an example.  We would agree that we can look at a sunset and see that it is beautiful, yet we would also agree that what makes it so is different for both of us.  My impression of beauty is not imputed upon you or vice versa.  The same could be said for joy or laughter.  We allow that individuals can experience the same emotion while experiencing it differently…yet when it comes to grief we think that because we have experienced grief that you must also experience it as me.

Of all the emotions that refuses similarity, grief refuses it the most yet it is the one we tend to harmonize and try to share.

Grief is the most complex yet we have made it the simplest by the way we relate to those in it.

This is impossible.  The truth of tragedy, beauty, grief or joy is they all transcend our ability to state them as facts and that is what makes them truthful; they are the stuff of real life because they transcend what can be thought, said or expressed.  All of these things refuse thought.  They refuse analogies whereby they can make sense.  They refuse a universal experience even though they are all experienced universally.

Thus, of most human experience it is impossible to speak, to describe, to bring under the submission of our ideas.  Wittgenstein held that a logical language can only deal with what is true, and unfortunately, what is true is precisely what evades language.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”

This weekend, a month ago, he was at my little girls birthday party, wearing Minnie Mouse ears and being the world’s greatest grandad.  Now, my father has been dead for 19 days.  For the first time in my life, I experienced a sudden rupture of the world; a reversal of what is normal into an alternative reality in which the tragic has defined the common place.  On Feb 27, around 5:30pm, I told my father “see ya later dad” for the final time as he left our office to go to a Karate Workout.

In the office that day we talked about what had to be done Tuesday if it didn’t rain, what the week would hold, and that I’d be able to help him with some things Wednesday.  We talked about family history briefly, talked about repairs being done, and he asked me if he should go workout given he had a sore rib.  We talked about mundane things.  Regular things.  We talked as if tomorrow was a given.

I was within minutes of leaving the office to do a monthly inventory at a store and someone stepped into my office and said “someone from Paul Huff called, they said your dad is having another episode.”

My father didn’t have “episodes.”  I had no idea what that meant but I needed to find out.

I made one call, then ran out of the office to my car and sped down Peerless Rd to the gym where my father was working out.  There, I encountered my 65 year old, 3rd degree black belt father, tied to a gurney, with a pulse and shallow breathing.  This situation did not feel right; it wasn’t good.  I was optimistic but my gut was beginning to sink knowing that the man I saw, my father, was on the edge of life…hanging on.

I grabbed my father’s bag from his instructor, threw it in my car and raced to the hospital to meet him there.  Along the way, I stopped for gas (I had been on “E” all day in town and didn’t need to run out now).  I called my wife, called my sister, tried calling my mother.  Panic had overtaken my body but I was hopeful…until the paramedic van took much longer to go to the hospital than it should have.  Finally, it appeared.  I followed it to the hospital, called my pastor as I parked, ran to the ER, and was immediately taken to Consultation Room 1.

My pastor arrived within minutes and was with me in the room when the ER Doctor comes into the room and says “Hi my name is (X).  This is not good.  I am not optimistic.  Your father is not responding to anything I am doing.  Can you tell me something about his medical history that may help me?”

Astounded at the breathtaking bluntness, I had nothing.  My dad took a small dose of cholesterol medication.  That was it.  I told him he was healthy, had a good recent physical, no known illnesses or disease.  The Dr. left the room.  I looked at my pastor and said “So, how many times have you gotten news that stark right out the gate?”  He shook his head, “nada.”  This doctor was not giving me any false hope.

About 10 minutes later, around 7:45, the Doc reentered the room, with long face and a low heart, he looked at me and said “I’m sorry, you father is gone.”  At that moment, my entire heart sank to the ground, my heart raged, my mind confused, I screamed and yelled.  I hit the wall, I fell against it and I sank to my knees as I wept for my father with a groaning and weeping I didn’t even know existed.  I hugged my pastor and I cried.  I squeezed him as hard as I could.  My mom had entered the hospital as I heard the news.  She heard me wail…and that is how she knew my dad was gone.

She entered the consultation room broken, weeping, herself in her hands.  We embraced and shook our heads in disbelief.  At 5:30 I talked to my dad.  At 7:45 he was gone.  Rupture.  Disruption.  Darkness.  Confusion.  Disbelief.  Pain.  Fear.  Loss.  Bottomless Sorrow.  What is this new world?

At 9pm we were escorted back to the room where my father lay. There, lying in a hospital bed and covered with his sheet up to his chest, was the man who only hours earlier had been with us.  Entering the room with me was my mother, sister and wife.  My pastor was also there, along with my dad’s brother and his family.

We spent 3 hours with my deceased father, not wanting to leave him.  We touched him, hugged him, we wept, we kissed him, we talked to him.  His body was still warm when we arrived but by midnight he was cold.  I walked around the room shaking my head, looking at the singularly most important man in my life, wondering how I would grieve him, how life would go on, what this new epoch would be.

How is it that MY DAD IS DEAD?!?  Death resisted, and resists, my thinking.

He was at work that morning, this Monday morning.  Everything was normal.  He said goodbye to me for the day.  I am not even sure I looked up to say goodbye, but I did look up to see him close the door behind him.  That was the last time I would see my father upright.

He went for a Karate workout.  He never came back.  That night my father died…and even as I type this I cannot believe I am typing this.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”

Grief.  Or as one of my friends described it “the bastard of sadness.”  How I wish I did not understand that definition.

I have been alive for 36 years.  I have lost people close to me, particularly my grandparents.  I was lucky enough to have all 4 of my grandparents well into adulthood.  They passed at the age of 75, 83, 87 and 89 respectively.  All of them were sick, some more than others.  Some we knew they would die, others it wasn’t a surprise but neither was it expected.  For all, I wept.  For all, with the blessing of my family, I eulogized them.  For all, I knew life also meant death and all of them had lived a full, long life.  I didn’t want to let them go, but I knew I had to.

None of their passings prepared me for this.  Not even one.

My father passing suddenly, unexpectedly, without warning and without any family history of cardiac arrest, is not the same for me as losing a grandparent I knew was sick or a father that had cancer whom we knew would die soon.  Here I am, trying to process losing my father a full 24 years before he lost his!  My dad was 63 when he buried his father…he had him his entire life.  I get to have my father half of mine.

I am trying to process going to karate one minute, dead the next.

I realize some people never had a father or some may have had a father for lesser years than me.  I am thankful I had him till he was 65 but I mourn he was taken too soon…and knowing I had him 36 years doesn’t change what happened or make my situation easier to compute or accept.

Now, overnight, I’m grieving my father while sitting in his desk, going to his church, running the business he started.  I am using his pens, reading his writing daily, using the folders and notebooks he organized…using his checkbooks with his last entries directly above mine!  I do not get to evacuate his presence and go back to my life because OUR LIVES ARE CONNECTED!  I don’t get to bury my dad in his town and then go back to mine.  I have to walk the same sidewalks he walked, talk to people he spoke to, tell people who call for him that he is dead, and use his emails to conduct business!

Most people don’t have to bury a father and then do what I do every day.

No, you may have lost a father but you don’t have to wake up and wear his shoes.

This is too much!

My father dying isn’t the same for me as attending my old father’s funeral, whom I knew was sick and would die, and with whom I had time to say my last peace, tell him I love him, tell him I’m sorry for ever being anything but grateful.  This is shock.  It is rupture.  It is confusion.  It is senseless.  It is morose.

Likewise, my mother was married to him for 38 years; She was 19.  Now, suddenly, she is without him.  Overnight, her house is silent in the morning and it is silent before bed.  The garbage doesn’t fill as fast.  The dishes are only hers and the laundry doesn’t have any of his clothes.  My mom did not lose a sick, aged man, who had been dying and whom she knew she would lose.  She experienced something totally different.

She lost her world in a single day and now she lives in another one without any warning.

When I think about what happened I cannot help but feel a sense of injustice, injustice that my dad took care of his body, was wary about what he put into it, had regular physicals and blood work, had Lifeway screenings, exercised and refrained from all dietary vices…yet still died without warning while people older, sicker, and in far worse shape avoid the Grim Reaper for some unknown reason.

It rains on the just and the unjust…and this isn’t just.

I don’t really know what people’s expectation of me or my family is.  When does the world expect me to be “fine?” When should I be happy again?  When is my mind free of my father’s constant memory?

I am not sure I know the answer, but if you expect me to be fine after just 3 weeks…I won’t be.  I am not fine.  This situation is not fine.  I will look fine and I will function, moment by moment, but inside I am thinking about my father…and missing him.  Seeing my 65-year-old father in that casket 10-15 years too soon is not fine!  I will tolerate it but I am not fine.

It will be a while before “I” and “fine” are one again…and spiritual platitudes do not make it easier.

I am not an expert at grief or loss.  If I am lucky, this will be the hardest loss I suffer.  I will die before my wife and kids, and my own mother will grow old and I will say goodbye to her in our time, with time and with notice.

I am no expert but I have observed something I feel compelled to share.

It is simple: you do not understand my loss.  You cannot relate and it is not the same as yours.  Likewise, I am also removed from your loss…for good or ill, bigger or smaller…you don’t understand mine and I don’t understand yours.  If yours was easier to deal with, great.  I am glad you had that blessing.  If mine is easier, than you are in my prayers…because this pit is its own special hell and I would hate to see where you are but I’ll acknowledge you’ve been to a place I haven’t.

This is blunt: you do not understand my loss.

Losing an old, sick father, is not the same as me losing a healthy father suddenly.  The slow rupture and loss you felt as you released emotional connection to a man you knew would die is not the same as my father being jerked out of my life, out of this world, and into another.

Just because you lost a dad, doesn’t mean you have any idea how the loss of mine feels.  Please don’t compare it…and please don’t tell me you understand…because you don’t.

Likewise, you don’t understand what my mother feels.  You may have lost a husband, and you may be a widow, but you didn’t talk to him at 5:30, hear him tell you he’ll see you at 7:30, and the next time you saw him was 9pm, in an ER bed, dead.  You losing your old husband isn’t the same.

For those of you who have experienced sudden, rupturing loss, you have an idea…and you know the depth of how bad it sucks…but even then, none of us can experience the grief of another nor should any of us impute our experience of grief onto another person.  I will not grieve as you, nor you as I, so please let’s save the nicety and be honest: we don’t understand how one another feels.

All we can do is be present…and stop with the impossible empathy and reminders that God has a plan because if killing humans is part of God’s plan and “timing,” then perhaps we should revisit whether a capricious God like that is worth our attention.  I digress.

Likewise, I do not understand what it is to lose my father when he was 40, after he dropped me off at school, only to find that later in the day he will commit suicide.  I do not get that pain.  I don’t understand that…but one of my friends does.  I lost a father, you lost a father, but none of us lost a father like that!  We don’t understand her loss even though we lost the same “person.”

You may understand what it means to lose a father, but you don’t understand what it means to lose one that left this world by his own actions.

My uncle lost a son at 20.  He said goodnight to him, hugged him, told him he loved him at 9pm.  6-7 hours later police knock on his door and tell him his son is dead.  He was killed in a car accident, ejected from the back of the rear window, thrown 200 feet, and DOA.  You may have lost a son…but did you lose him like that?

I pray I never lose a child like that…I don’t understand that kind of loss…and I never want to.  Many people have lost sons, and fathers, and wives and daughters…but each loss is unique.  Yet we seem to think that because we have lost that same “person” we understand what the grieving person is feeling.

Well, we don’t.  I never understood that quite like I understand it now so I am sorry if I ever told you “I understand” when I really had no idea.

We need to stop saying it because all it does it either belittle our own loss or it belittles the loss of the other; It does nothing to comfort the hurting person.  We can never feel the grief of the other.  We are always outside someone else’s experience.

I am not writing this to negate your loss or say my loss is greater than yours…but I do believe, and psychological research reinforces this, that certain types of loss are harder to adjust to and process than others.  Loss and grief is not universally experienced.  Your loss may be greater, or easier to process, but our losses are not the same.

Your experience is unavailable to me and mine is unavailable to you.

As for my loss, I do not expect anyone to understand even though people have told me they do because they “lost a father too.”  I don’t expect empathy because my individual experience is just that: individual.

I appreciate all the thoughts and prayers and texts, but the experience of grief via the death of a loved one is not universal.  It is singular and it is experienced singularly via the relationship we had to the departed.  You losing a father isn’t like me losing a father, or vice versa…and you losing a father or husband in old age isn’t like my mother losing a spouse.

I’m sorry we can’t feel for one another but the nature of feeling refuses its synonymy.

Honestly, I feel cheated and robbed by what happened.  My father’s death not only ended his life, but it will change and shape the direction of my life, my mom, my sister, and my kid’s life…all in a way that if it had happened in a decade from now wouldn’t have been the case.  Most of all, his untimely death doesn’t allow me to be a better son, speak power into his life, encourage him when I knew he needed it but was too busy to take the time.  While I will move past those regrets, I will get to live with them.

My grief is mine.  It is not ours.  The sooner we understand this the better humans we can be toward one another when we experience loss, and at some point, we will experience it for ourselves or we will share it with others.

Not all people will go through sudden loss.

Some of us will be lucky.  We will grow old, our parents will grow old, our children will grow old…and we will bury one another in appropriate seasons.  I pray that is what happens for you.  I pray you never feel what it means for a loved one to be instantly removed without warning.  I pray you wake up each day to a familiar world with familiar people.  I pray you get to let them go gently.  I pray you are that fortunate…and I pray I am that fortunate moving forward.

Some Deserts may be traveled with others but they are experienced alone.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”

 

 

 

 

My Fathers Sermon on Peace

 

Dad and Leon

Two weeks ago, Feb 26th, was my father’s last Sunday alive.  In usual fashion, he found himself at church around 9:30am preparing to teach Sunday School.  I did not attend his Sunday School class that morning.  I missed his last lesson.  In retrospect, I wish I had not worked so much on the weekends, long Saturdays, and had had more strength to wake up and drag my troop to church for Sunday School regularly.  I’d have liked to sat in on a few more of his lessons, asked a few more questions, and sat more readily at the feet of the singularly most important man in my life. 

Today, is Sunday, March 12, 2017.  My father would have turned 66 in August, he just celebrated 38 years with my mother.  He was just at my daughters 2 year old Birthday party two weeks ago and tomorrow is my 36th birthday.  The first one I will spend without my father writing me a card, telling me he loves, wishing me a happy birthday.  I am not much worried about memorializing my birth this year.  In tribute to what my father did each Sunday, and would be doing today if he were here, I share with all of you a rare thing: One of his sermons.  He preached a handful of times and this is one of them.  It is on a topic he held dear to him: inner peace.

Below is a typed copy of the 4 page handwritten manuscript of my father’s sermon on peace. 

Peace was a central gospel theme for him: peace through trust in God, peace through salvation by faith, peace by knowing it is well with your soul, peace and harmony in relationship to one another as indicative of our love for God.  A Gospel absent the peace of God in Christ is no Gospel.  My father longed for, and lived, with peace and harmony with everyone.  I cannot recall a single person he ever spoke ill of or held in contempt.  Even if he was wronged, he may acknowledge the shadiness of the person but he would never gossip or speak ill publicly of them.  He wanted peace.  He had peace.  And he had it because he believed in God. 

My prayer this morning, is the prayer of Thomas: Lord, help me be like my father, help my disbelief.  In so doing, give me, and those around me, nothing more, or less, than peace.      

“Peace”   by Mitch Napier

Read John 16:33 : “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Is there a secret to inner peace?  When you think about peace, what do you think the average person thinks about?  I believe they think of peace among nations on a global scale, generally speaking.  I believe people may also think about peace at home, at work.

One thing that seems definite is that after trouble more trouble follows.  (this is why inner peace is the key.  If we can attain inner peace all others would fall in HIM.  When peace does not abound, trouble is present).  Let’s reflect on the past for examples: WW 1, Depression, WW 2, Korean Conflict, Vietnam War, escalating fuel prices, unemployment on the rise, crime on the increase, the bible taken out of schools, Gulf War, Bosnian conflict, Abortion, and most recently 9/11 and the war on terrorism – and it goes on.  Look in your local paper daily, read about the troubles, again it only seems the thing we can count on is trouble after trouble. 

Yet the thing that keeps us going is the personal Quest for inner peace.  Someone writes a book about inner peace and people flock to it.  A man stands up and says he found the secret to peace, people flock to him.  People have a hunger for peace.  There is no natural peace that comes automatically after the storm has been weathered. 

Have you ever found something that in your heart when it was over you knew everything would be alright?  I have.  I was unemployed [with a family to take care of] for 10 months.  If only I could have found a job everything would be alright.  I got the job to late and lost the house.  If I only got that promotion…yet then would follow more debt.  If I get through this illness, then we have  medical bills.

An example of another family’s situation was Jane Welsh Carlisle, who was working on the 1st volume of the French Revolution.  During his writing, the tension and stress was great in his home (you ever experienced this?)  Finally, the manuscript was finished.  At last he had peace.  He turned it over to John Stewart Mill to read.  A few days passed and John Mill showed up at the Carlisle home with a nightmarish expression on his face.  Jane thought the worst and asked what was wrong.  Mr. Mill stated his maid accidentally burned the manuscript.  Trouble.

But Jesus said in the world you’ll have tribulation.

You see, trouble comes to mankind in all forms due to our freedom and sinfulness.  Most people look to the world and world leaders for peace.  It’s always someone else who can make it better!  But the truth is, we must start at home, with ourselves. 

There is a story about a family in California that put their house up for sale.  They wanted a better neighborhood, better neighbors, more room, a house with no trouble.  So they listed it with an agent.  Several weeks later they were going through a real estate guide looking for a home.  They finally came to a consensus on a home that sounded perfect!  They immediately called before someone else purchased it.  To their amazement, the home they thought sounded perfect was their own home.

Some will say peace is in nature, look at your surroundings and the animals.  Some peace may be in achievement.  Peace can be found through psychology: lack of love, trust, selfishness, etc., as obstacles.  But sooner or later we find that peace does not come by any rational process!  Paul said the peace of God passeth all understanding.  Peace sought for through the world is always temporary!  That promotion, the accomplishments we make, a new car, anew house, a new dress suit—BUT all these are temporary for sooner or later trouble is back and we are searching again! 

Peace comes to us by meeting certain conditions!

1.       We must have faith in God.  Without seeing we must believe on Jesus that he was sent by the Father and died for our sins on the cross and arose the Third Day victorious over sin!!  He overcame the world! & defeated sin!

2.       We must worship God.  Through daily living we let the trouble and trials of the world affect and irritate us!  That’s why worship is so important.  When we truly worship God our focus is on God and his Kingdom, on being a servant not being served.  Then, and only then, can God meet our inner needs!  Worship is vital to a peaceful existence!  We stop controlling things and allow God to control us!  Worship is the whole that includes the all!!

3.      We must be in Gods will.  Only by being in his will is their peace.  This is the most difficult – discerning his will for our life.  But I believe God reveals his will to each of us by his indwelling Spirit- for if we have accepted salvation (and the free gift of God) he dwells within us and directs us.  Does this mean we no longer make a wrong decision?  No- Jesus knows our weaknesses and will direct his spirit to lead and make correction to our deficiencies. We must be willing to listen and obey and grow.

If we do all this we truly are servants and Jesus promised in him we would have peace for he has overcome the world!!  What Jesus has promised he will deliver – we must believe and exercise our faith to have the peace that only Jesus gives! 

Inner peace comes as a result of obeying Christs greatest commandment that we love one another.  When we obey that commandment we are following his will and in his will is power!!

Do you want that peace?  Are your troubles weighing you down?  My troubles were Food Lion.  I wanted peace back.  I called upon Jesus to carry my burden and I claimed his promises that in him I’d have peace because he overcame the world!!  Hallelujah!! 

Jesus is calling on you.  If you have a need, if you need the peace that surpasseth all understanding, please come and let Jesus meet that need!!

*Sing Just as I Am!  But without one plea but that they blood was shed for me.

We Are What We Do

There is an adage oft repeated by professors of history, theology and bible: form and content, form and content…are two sides of the same coin.

To a fledgling student of these disciplines this statement sounds strange, even awkward.  As people in cultures, we have preconceived ideas of the meaning of history, what we believe about God and the world, and whether we even care about the bible.  We are good on the content side; we have content.

But what about form?  How is content affected by form?

Many of us know what we believe but many of us fail to consider how what we believe is demonstrated in our lives, the latter being an expression of the former prior to any sort of verbal acknowledgment.

As philosopher Slavoj Zizek would like to remind us, we are not what we say…we are what we do.

There are many ways to answer that question but I want to answer it from a theological and ecclesiastical position, a classical confession that is nearly as old as the church.  Its dictum can be found in the Latin phrase “Lex Orandi (the way we worship), Lex Credendi (what we believe), Lex Vivendi (how we live).”

Translation? The way worship is reflective of our faith and so in turn is reflective of how we live.

Regarding religious communities this dictum is typically accurate.

For example, a church that has a strong theological conviction (lex credendi) to work for social justice will embody that conviction in their worship (lex orandi).  It will be a church that prays for social justice, that preaches sermons challenging its people to be inclusive in their ministry, and urges people to confront oppressive cultural structures that alienate others.  It will have an open table for all who wish to dine with Christ, a table that will not discriminate based on baptism, sexuality, gender, race, etc.  It will most likely be a diverse church, one that is urban centered where racial, ethnic and cultural differences are spanned by a common urban experience.  It will value community more than individuality.  Its confession and worship being intimately, and intentionally, linked.

Thus, its faith (credendi) is exhibited in its worship (orandi), which in theory should extend to the way its members participate in the world ethically, politically, economically, etc.

Another example might be the relationship of form and content in regard to the average Americans opinion, or convictions, regarding religion.  

Many Americans acknowledge a strong commitment to ideas such as God, even considering themselves religious.  When they are polled we see a fantastically religious group of people in the United States.  However, when we observe actual practices and probe further, we find that the form of their lives does not connect with the content of their confessions.

Recent studies show us that about ¼ of Americans attend a religious service once a month.  Dogma is on the decline, knowledge of sacred texts and traditions is waning, and acts of service seem to stem from humanitarian desires rather than theological conviction.  People are praying but their prayers do not seem to indicate a dependence on a transcendent personality given the prevalence of practical atheism, even among those within a religious community.

Admitting that the above is a general and broad description, it is clear that the form of many American lives is not connected to the content of their confession.  The form (orandi)  is disclosing the real content regardless of what they confess (credenda).

This is a troublesome reality for many Christians who have for so long believed that their confessions “save” them.

Catholics, for example, have believed that the liturgical act of Eucharist can supersede who they are because who they are is lost in an Augustinian abyss.  Imputed grace is the word of the day.  Yet, if the content of the kenotic Christ does not take root in the person than the form (orandi) is anemic, never fully connected to a confession (credendi). 

 To further complicate the issue for Catholics, it is as if there is an artificial separation between publics, one holy and one secular.  In the holy public of the church building confession and worship go hand in hand, yet in the secular public outside its walls lies a huge disconnect between confession and act.
Protestants have it no better.  

Protestants have placed such a heavy emphasis on confession that we have entire traditions of Christians who believe their words, or silent thoughts in their minds at an altar, carry eternal consequence.  With Luther as their theological grandparent, action is eschewed for confession, form becoming separated from content as the Letter of James was from Luther’s theological confession.  

We sincerely hope we can tell ourselves who we are without actually being that person…and all thanks to the generous theological idea of grace.

This should make us all wary.  

It doesn’t mean that our theological traditions, be they Catholic, Protestant or otherwise, are poor traditions, mistaken metanarratives of no use to us.  Rather, it is the opposite: these theological worlds exist in the delicate balance between form and content, their very survival and efficaciousness dependent on people able to live them out instead of betray them.

Jesus knew of this delicate balance and of participants in religious systems that seem to have forgotten the necessary relationship between form and content.  He said as much when he said

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles are they? (Matthew 7. 15-16)

The philosophical issues that surround the relationship between form and content are literally endless.  Entire treatises and lectures have been written on the subject.  

Nuances aside, there is one thing that remains and it is a terrible thing to consider: Say what we will and think what we may, our lives may not be what we say and we may not be who we think.

I leave you with a poem.

The Human Abstract by William Blake

Pity would be no more,

If we did not make somebody Poor;

And Mercy no more could be.

 

If all were as happy as we;

 

And mutual fear brings peace;

Till the selfish loves increase.

 

Then Cruelty knits a snare,

And spreads his baits with care.

 

He sits down with holy fears.

 

And waters the ground with tears:

Then Humility takes its root

Underneath his foot.

 

Soon spreads the dismal shade

Of Mystery over his head;

And the Caterpillar and Fly

Feed on the Mystery.

 

And it bears the fruit of Deceit.

 

Ruddy and sweet to eat:

And the Raven his nest has made

In its thickest shade.

 

The Gods of the earth and sea,

Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree

But their search was all in vain:

There grows one in the Human Brain

 

 

Don’t Blame Your Vote on the Bible

votethebible

A curious thing has happened this election cycle, the likes of which I have never witnessed in my 35 years of life: Christians are voting for a man that is completely morally bankrupt.

It’s an unusual place for people of faith to find themselves in. Usually, at least where I grew up, the sinner is the democrat, the evil fiend that supports partial birth abortion (which sickens me as much as many of you), cradle to grave financial assistance and condones anything, anyone, wants to do with their body.  The choice, at least in the minds of many, has always been clear.

I literally did not meet my first Democrat Christian until I went to college but that’s because I didn’t know any Democrats in my Republican evangelical bubble.  Until the ripe age of 18 I had no idea a Christian Democrat was even possible…and many still hold this opinion.

Republicans are Christian (family values) and Democrat’s support things that ain’t; It’s as simple as that.

This is what people usually mean when they say “I vote with a biblical worldview” and it usually results in social policy that reflects the Republican Party (since fiscally both parties are the same).

I know, I know, but don’t tune me out yet. I’m not trying to make you mad…I’m trying to make you think.

I am not saying that anyone has the moral high ground this election. I’m not saying that you should vote for Clinton (I’m not) but saying that morality is now relative or that one’s morality is at least better than the others (even though both Trump and Clinton have proven absent) is not an argument for anything.

It’s an argument to justify a decision.

I am stating that for many years now, at least since President Reagan, a large segment of voters have voted based on “Christian” values, and now, faced with voting for someone that doesn’t share those Christian values, but does sit atop the GOP ticket, Christians are scrambling to either jettison the importance of values or make Trump align with values he’s never embraced.

One of the many attempts to do so, and the object of this essay, is to suggest that since God used sinful people in the Old Testament that clearly means God can use sinful people to accomplish his goals and not merely use, but that God chose to implement this strategy.

Just find a random religious thread on Facebook or Twitter, a thread that uses the Bible to justify voting Trump, and you will find this argument.

I literally read in a thread (and since I have heard it countless times in various forms) that “since God used the midwives of Pharaoh, Samson, and the Assyrians to accomplish his will it is possible that God can use Trump as well…and he’s better than Clinton.”

So let me get this straight.

The reason we should vote for Trump is because he shares commonality with Assyria, Babylon, Egypt and Old Testament Heroes that were narcissistic? That’s the argument we are working with here?

We are not in Kansas anymore.

God “used” these “evil” or “sinful” realities to administer world history, therefore, we should vote for someone of the same character for God to continue to do so? A character the likes of which God’s prophets continually warned against using?
If this was the case, and Christians for so long have not voted democrat for EXACTLY that reason (evil, sinful, depraved policies) then why haven’t Christians been voting Democrat all along?

Maybe we could have expedited this whole American Exile thing that many people believe we have entered.

If there is any thread that runs throughout the scriptures it is not one of obedience, but one of a called, chosen people, disobeying God, repetitively being disciplined, corrected, and then redeemed.

Israel never “gets it” so to speak. God has to use that which is not sanctified because sanctified Israel is hardly of use. But it’s not like the Bible tells us that was pleasing to God.

But since the Bible says God used those things that weren’t holy to do his will we are now ready to embrace those unholy things because the unholy is the only choice we have…

The only issue I have here is that we don’t want to admit that. We want to justify it with our faith in order to sleep at night, but the result of doing so is damage to that very faith construct.  The damage of which will be felt long after any election.

Personally, I do not care about the morality of my president (no I am not voting Trump). There was a time when people of government and official administration were mannered, polite and self-deferential for the common good. That time has long passed.

Recent American presidential history (at least from JFK to the present) gives us a cast of characters that set the bar very low when it comes to morality.

I wrote here during the primary season that it’s absurd to vote on values any longer. I argued we should vote on political principles and philosophy instead. This is how a Christian, like myself, can embrace the political philosophy of one Thomas Jefferson (an agnostic I would argue but some say atheist). We share different faith lenses but that doesn’t keep me from being persuaded of his political philosophy.

The very last thing we should do, however, is justify a flawed character because we believe the bible justified flawed characters.

This is both the problem, solution and brilliance of scripture.

Scripture has no recourse but to use flawed characters because that is literally all that it has. And that should make us all feel a little better about ourselves.
There is no biblical character, no hero of the bible, that is perfect. None of them are holy and contrite in every intention. The great heroes: Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon…they are all messed up people.

So the point is, yes, God uses flawed people because we are all flawed people.

But there is also an irony when you compare those flawed people with the cast of characters known as Assyria, Persia, and the rest: Those characters are NEVER used in the bible as exemplars of the kinds of people or nations God WANTS to use. 

This is the large message of all of these Books in the Old Testament: Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings. In these books, the people of God FAIL to live as Deuteronomy instructs them. The bible heroes in these stories are tragic displays of unfaithfulness that God continues to work around, so in an ironic twist, we see them behave like Donald Trump, disobey commands, get themselves in precarious situations. 

They are not exemplars of how to be faithful to God. God wants to use THESE people but because they are so dense he outsources to the nations and to characters who are not part of God’s people (in the narrative).

The message is: Don’t be like these people…it will not go well if you do. Samson committed suicide, Moses never entered the Promised Land, David never ruled a united Kingdom and Israel eventually went into Exile. All Bad stuff.

The fact that God has to use these other characters (Assyria, Persia, Pharaohs midwives, just pick your villain or non-Israelite cast member) is not a justification of them; it is an indictment against Israel. It is tongue in cheek.  

It is not a “go and do likewise” commandment of Jesus.

Through them scripture teaches us this lesson: so you won’t fulfill the calling I have for you? Fine. Moving right along and this way may take a bit longer.

It’s never God’s preference to use Assyria, or the Philistines, or whomever. This is what ends up happening because God’s people are of no use.

This is why we find many stories in the Old Testament in which the least suspected characters are servants of God: God didn’t set out for Israel to be misguided but misguided it has been so God has to use other actors in history, not as a first resort, not as a vote FROM his people, but because there is a mission to accomplish.

At least this is what we find in the biblical narrative, the narrative that gives us theological justification for why history happened as it did.

The Bible records events years after the events themselves. Its authors have spent copious hours trying to understand, justify and make sense of the movement of history.  What we find in scripture is the result of that process.

God using evil as a first choice, however, is never condoned. God’s people selecting kings that were blatantly antithetical to their principles as a people never happened intentionally (though one could argue that their initial intentions were flawed and such happened regularly such as King Saul or some of Solomon’s sons).

It makes little sense to use the Bible in this way, to suggest that because an event happened in the Bible and God used it, that that is God’s preferred way of doing things.

It makes even less sense to suggest that we should be implicated in wrong doing because God can use it anyhow.

Something about Jesus saying “it is written you shall not test the Lord your God” comes to mind here…

Sometimes the Bible is not a prescription for how we are to act. Sometimes it is a warning against how not to act. It teaches us what to prevent through its witness and what to avoid embracing…which is why all the Christian justification of Trump is so puzzling.

You want to vote for Trump, that’s cool, but don’t blame it on God or the Bible.  Own it yourself.

Same goes if you want to vote Hillary.  She’s not the benevolent government administrator one finds in Jacob.

I feel like we have fully become biblical Israel in this election because we have forgotten who we are and justified a vote for depravity with our faith. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Sounds a lot like another story I know, a story that finds God’s people doing what they thought was right even as a golden calf was being fashioned right before their eyes.
And we know what they did for the next 40 years after that vote was cast.

Back to the Future and Syria…some lessons we must unlearn

back-to-the-future

I’ll never forget one of the opening scenes in the movie Back to the Future.  Doc and Marty have gathered in a mall parking lot to experiment with Doc’s new time machine.  This is the setting for the first test run of a machine that will travel through time and space.  Einstein will be vindicated.

As Doc and Marty unload the Delorean and back it onto the pavement, Marty is recording the entire episode with one of those old school hand held vhs recorders (can you believe we used to haul those things around to capture a memory???)

Then, out of the corner of his eye, Doc sees something disturbing.  He notices a white van armed with heavy artillery machine guns careening in his direction…and at once, as the audience is still trying to figure out what’s happening, Doc yells with a squeaky high pitched tone, “The Libyans!”

Marty is lost.  Why should they care about Libyans?  Doc quickly explains that the time machine needs powerful fuel and the only fuel powerful enough for time travel in 1985 is plutonium…and Doc stole the plutonium from the Libyan Terrorists!

The Libyans crash into the scene shooting up Doc’s car and making Marty duck for cover.  Doc himself is caught in the fire and is presumed dead after being riddled with bullets.  Unbeknownst to Marty (and the audience) Doc isn’t really dead.  He had a silver try on his chest because he knew the Libyans would show up.

As the scene is coming to an end, the time machine eventually has a successful flight “back to the future,” Marty is left recording it all and the Libyans crash their van in a wreckage of fiery misplaced glory as they chase after the Delorean.

And that is how a generation of Americans were introduced to Libyans and Middle Easterners of similar ilk:  Terrorists who smuggle arms, money and chemicals on the black market. 

I vividly remember as a child of 7 years old watching Back to the Future the first time and having this very subtle impression lodged in my consciousness.

Some things never change.

Millions of Americans, if not a majority, continue to have a biased opinion against  Middle Eastern Islamic countries.  The images projected upon us in 1985 from Back to the Future have found a similar place in our collective geopolitical consciousness.  This despite the fact that millions of the same Americans have never visited these countries, lived with its people, studied it history or asked hard questions of our governments approach.

The contemporary hatred for Syria is a fine example of this stereotyping. 

Many steretypes exist around Syria and thinking its government to be akin to Nazi Germany or theocratic Iran has been fueled by the Bush Administration’s ability to turn Syria and Assad into a molten pariah and has been continued by Obama’s pathological desire to want regime change in Syria regardless of the geopolitical consequences.

Obama’s stance has been so hardened that it led him to declare what many of us remember as his “red line” if you will.  The Red Line was Obama’s arbitrary designation that prohibited Assad and his military from using chemical weapons in its war with Free Syrian Rebels.  If Assad used chemicals, then Obama would act with a swift military campaign.

In 2013, it was believed by the administration that that had in fact happened.  A series of attacks in March and April of that year were launched in a small village around the city of Aleppo.   Chemical weapons (a type of sarin gas) were deployed and at least 19 civilians, and 1 solider were killed while scores of others  suffered injuries.  The Obama administration was hot and it began to make preparations to neutralize Assad.

The attack was supposed to happen no later than September 2, but on August 31, 2013, Obama gave a press conference at the Rose Garden and announced the attack would be put on hold as he would seek the approval of Congress (even though he did not seek this same approval in Libya).

Long story short, it is now well known that the Al-Nusra front and the Turks both have the ability to make and proliferate the type of Sarin used in the attack at Aleppo.  Assad’s army did not have that type of Sarin at its disposal.  Obama was being punked, set up, in order to fight a proxy war for Turkey and the Rebels.  The Rebels had released the Sarin on civilians in order to induce an American attack.

Luckily, at the behest of the joint chiefs, the attack never occurred and Obama eventually wised up.  Though his neurotic Syrian policy remains the administration’s stance and few Americans know the truth about chemicals used in Syria…even fewer care to discover the truth as it is much easier to hate Syria than not fall victim to cultural group think.

As Americans, we should ask ourselves, “Should we allow images of Back to the Future and our government’s policy against Syria to be projected onto us?”  Should we embrace it?  Or might it be better to ask a few questions of the government many of us already distrust?

There are actually several reasons to not hate Syria and I would like to propose a few here.  The situation is complex and fraught with the danger of painting too broadly or not considering the many facets of discussion.   Nonetheless, a corrective step in our thinking about Syria is in order.

No doubt, the Assad family rose to power as the result of government take over.  Those are rarely pretty and they are rarely done without exacting causalities.  Bashir Assads father, Hafez, was a shrewd politician and came to power via the Corrective Revolution of 1970 as he took his Ba’ ath Party to power.    He arrested and imprisoned much of his opposition and appointed men of similar religious and political persuasion to positions of power in the new government.

What would result would be a police state and the president (a president by force if you will) was established as a national icon and allegiance to him (or at least not against him) was expected.  This is similar to many other Middle Eastern countries by the way.

There are several occasions of brutality and political maneuvering during Haffez’s presidency that would appall Americans.  Attempts to overthrow the government were the harshest offenses.  Those are well documented and you can search for them yourself.  Despite those attempts, the Assad’s have held onto Syria for nearly 50 years.  Hafez groomed his son Bashar to become president and Bashar has now been president since 2000 (the year his father died).

What I want to point out is not how we got here, but now that we are here how we might think more clearly about Syria and an Assad “regime.”

Is our current opinion and policy warranted?  Should we desire Assad’s ouster because of its historical trajectory or might the world be better off to support his presidency as Westerners even though we may wince at the political culture itself?

First, we should support Assad because he espouses religious toleration.  Anyone that replaces him, such as the folks that now run Iraq, Libya or Egypt, will not espouse religious toleration.

Assad is a member of a unique religious minority that is a mixture of Christian mysticism and Islamic practice.  He is an Alawite, a minority in Syria (less than 5% of the population) that has been persecuted and targeted by the larger Sunni presences for the majority of Syrian history.  As a religious minority and from a family that had experienced religious intoleration, Assad provided (and would provide) a safe space of Muslims, Christians and other minorities to practice their religion.  Syria is one the historical birth places of Christianity and the early church had a strong presence there.  There are convents in Syria that can be traced back to the 3rd and 4th centuries and these Christians, though a minority, have been free to live and practice their religion in Syria without persecution.

Likewise, Alawites, Druze, and Ismallis also experienced religious toleration.  To be sure, such was not the case at the beginning of the Corrective Revolution when suspicions were high of any religious expression that could usurp the new Alawite controlled government, but today toleration was the modus operandi.

If Assad is removed such will no longer be the case and we could see the eradication of minority religious sects, including Christianity, from Syria.

Second, Assad provides stability.

The largest point of contention during Bush’s administration was the proliferation of weaponry through Syria to Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations, in attacks upon Israel.  The previous administration felt as if Assad was not doing enough to control their borders and stop the trafficking of weaponry.

How times have changed.  With Isis active in the region, the issue is now just to get rid of Assad for the hell of it.  This administration has made no good argument to oust Assad except the false chemical narrative and to continue the narrative of Bush’s axis of evil.  With multiple examples of what attempting to inaugurate “democracy” in the Middle East has actually done, how is this argument still a good one?

Otherwise, why do we want him to leave when it is now clear that the rebellions in other Middle Eastern states have NOT produced the kind of democracy we had hoped?  Is anyone in the government so foolish as to think this is a rebellion of civilians against their government in search of a more democratic way?  In fact, the opposite has shown itself to be the case.  If Assad is deposed, mass instability will ensue into every facet of Syrian life, and the Syrian refugee crisis will disclose itself as the tip of the iceberg.

As Seymour Hersh states, “the so-called moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey…The assessment was bleak: there was no viable moderate opposition to Assad and the US was arming extremists.”

We may not like a Syrian version of democracy, but is the alternative really that much better?

Third, Assad has cooperated militarily with our government even though the public is unaware.

The US and its allies have the best intelligence gathering agencies in the world.  Sryia does not.  However, in unauthorized protocol and communication, there is strong evidence to suggest that Sryia has cooperated with distributing military intelligence about the locations of Isis and Al-Nusra within Syria to the West and its ally in the east, Russia.  Further, Syria provided information about its capabilities and intentions through various military channels with the understanding that it would reach the US.  In exchange, the US military has also put out actionable information that it knew would reach Syria.

In addition, and despite our national amnesia, Syria has cooperated with the US under the Bush administration as well.  After 9/11, Assad was “extremely helpful” according to a former consultant in the intelligence community.  Seymour Hersh notes the extent of cooperation with the US after 9/11.

“In 2002 Assad authorized Syrian intelligence to turn over hundreds of internal files on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Germany.  Later that year, Syrian intelligence foiled an attack by al-Qaida on the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and Assad agreed to provide the CIA with the name of a vital al-Qaida informant.  In violation of the agreement, the CIA contacted the informant directly; he rejected the approach and broke off relations with his Syrian handlers.  Assad also secretly turned over to the US relatives of Saddam Hussein who had sought refuge in Syria, and – like the Americans allies in Jordan, Egypt, Thailand and elsewhere- tortured suspected terrorists for the CIA in a Damascus Prison” (104-105)

Like Washington, Syria believes Isis must be stopped.  Yet we remain churlish toward their historical overtures.

Fourthly, countries we know that support extremism want him gone.

Some of these countries are our allies such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.  In fact, these countries have been conspiring with our own government to traffic weapons into Syria in order to exact regime change.  Why would we, as Americans, support the same regime change of a country with no evidence to ever suggest it  (Syria) is an existential threat to America when we have documented mountains of evidence that the few nations mentioned above support, fund and have provided haven to people who are hostile to America, the west and any other religion but their own?

There are existential threats but the Syrian government is hardly one of those.

Why would we be motivated to partner with the devil in order to get closer to the Anti-Christ?  Seems to me there’s much more at stake (money, ideology, silent promissory notes, etc.) that is driving this decision.

Why is the US not directing its attention toward these countries?  Why have we not stood on our moral high horse, our Reaganite “city on  a hill” and demanded more from our NATO pals?

It’s not that the US is not cozy with regimes.  We are very cozy with dictatorships that provide stability so long as we have a piece of the pie.  Due to our frigid rhetorical flourishes toward Syria we have not been allowed to share in any of the pie they distribute.

We are the quintessential bully of the world’s militaries:  We create fantastic narratives about how our violence is justified in order to hide from the reality of our misuse of power.  We pick on countries we know we can defeat while we sleep with countries that have our babies…even though they are cheating on us every second they get.

And like one of my seminary colleagues who served in the armed forces was apt to say: We have to have conflict.  If we don’t have conflict we cannot try out our weaponry, we do not know our full capability and the military cannot promote officers.  Conflict and American Militarism go hand in hand.

Lastly, I have experienced Syrian hospitality first hand.  In 2007 I was able to visit the belly of the beast, Damascus, and spend 4 days within the country’s borders. I visited sites that have been held by Isis such as Palmyra and I have seen the beauty of its people and its geography.  I walked in downtown Damascus and I honestly felt safer there than when I was in Israel, where it seems guns are everywhere in public.  The Syrian people were kind, informative, hospitable, and proud of their country.  I shared Q & A sessions with Christian Syrian doctors, was given a tour of the country by someone that is now a Syrian refugee who has endured hardships and relocated his family to Scandinavia, shared meals with Syrians proud of their heritage and enjoyed the stability of the Assad government when I was there learning as a student and Christian pastor.

I loved Syria when I was there.  I loved its people.  It has a special place in my heart and I wish I could share that experience with each American I come into contact with everyday because I know if we could have passed the peace with Syrians together there would be less hatred toward the country, more empathy for those lost in its war time tragedy and more understanding for a government that might not be our favorite but may be doing the best it can.

Thus, with this overture I ask you to reconsider your opinions on Syria, its government and to caste an opinion that is informed.  Study the situation.  Read some investigative journalism.  And by all means, think for yourself. Do not let your opinion be persuaded by Obama or Fox News…let it be persuaded by the sometimes ugly, and hard choice, that comes when we make decisions based on fact rather than feeling.

I know what we all learned from Back to the Future, but maybe it’s time to rethink that impression.

*The extended Hersh quote and other small quotes are taken from essays in his recently released, Seymour Hersh. The Killing of Osama Bin Laden. New York: Verso, 2016.

 

Have You Ever Woke Up White?

MLK POST

Have you ever work up and realized you’re white?

I don’t mean have you gotten out of bed in the morning, brushed your teeth and stared at your Caucasian skin, noting blemishes, razor nicks or an unsightly new hair.

I mean, have you ever woken up and REALIZED YOU ARE WHITE?

Well.  I haven’t either…until this week.

Last Wednesday, July 6, I was running late for an appointment.  I was driving, not recklessly, but a little too fast for the speed limit posted.  A police officer clocked me, quickly got behind my vehicle, turned on his lights, and directed me to pull over.  I was doing 55 in a 45.

The officer, who was white, pulled behind my car, parked and delayed approaching my vehicle.  After a few minutes of gathering his thoughts, or perhaps running my tag, he makes his way to my window, stands slightly out of sight and over my left shoulder and asks “How are you doing today sir?”  I could see him from my peripheral vision because he avoided standing directly beside my car, presumably to protect himself not knowing whom he had just pulled over.

My reply was instant and without concern, “Well officer, I was fine until I was pulled over.”

The officer looked at me and replied, “Well, I understand that.  Have a good day and be safe.”

I replied, “Thank you officer, I’ll watch my speed”

This entire encounter took maybe 60 seconds.  It was the fastest interaction I have ever had with an officer.  At the time, I was thankful for its brevity.

Tuesday evening, July 5, news broke about the altercation between police and Alton Sterling, a black man hustling outside a convenient store in Baton Rouge, LA.  The altercation resulted in Mr. Sterling’s death and an unsightly video of interaction went viral.

Later Wednesday evening, the nation would witness another altercation between a black man and police, which resulted in the death of one Philando Castile.  As with the Louisiana shooting, this one in Minnesota went viral with a video and commentary from his girlfriend that sat next to him as he was shot and dying.

Immediately these events started to shake the foundations of America and the quiet undercurrents of prejudice and violence once again erupted before our eyes.  It’s as if a latent existential crisis had now burst onto the national stage front and center, demanding the attention of everyone.  The shock waves of this violence were instantaneously enormous and threatened to swallow the nation in a race war with endless violence as five Dallas police officers were shot by a black man whose motive for killing them was revenge for the brutality he had recently witnessed, as well as the historical witness of police brutality against the black community.

We are not yet out of the woods.  More violence could be on the way, as one alleged plot to kill police officers has already been foiled.

In an attempt to be peacekeepers and healers, Presidents Bush and Obama spoke at a memorial service for the police, each one offering powerful words of hope and admonition for the future. Town hall meetings are taking place to discuss the tensions between policing and minority communities, protestors are clamoring with their city officials and entire communities are mobilizing to peacefully respond to the current injustices.

It’s not just black people that are seeking change, but many white people are busy advocating for their brothers and sisters in the black community as well. 

As all of this unfolded I began to ask myself, “If I were black would the police stop I encountered Wednesday have been different?”  Can I honestly say that if I were a black man (with all the historical baggage and stereotyping I would be carrying) the officer would have released me in a matter of seconds or would this ordeal have involved a bit more questioning and a longer stop?

Of course, this is hypothetical.  I am not black and there is no way of knowing what the officer would have done if I were, but I don’t think it too far afield to assume that if I were black I would have been detained a few minutes longer, I would have been asked a few more questions, and might have even walked away with a ticket rather than an exhortation to “be safe.”

I really hate writing about this.  I don’t want to comment on race.  I want to ignore it and pretend it isn’t an issue.

I don’t want to write about it.  I don’t want to talk about it.  I want to stay out of the fray.

It is safer to be quite and not say anything.

Yet, how can I not speak up when there is clearly a higher level of suspicion against those with black skin than those with white skin, even when it comes to routine traffic stops.

We do have a race problem in this country and the only people saying otherwise are privileged white people who have never experienced a racist sentiment against them in their lives.  Trying to be white and say race doesn’t matter is like telling someone who’s been abused emotionally it doesn’t matter that they are abused because you’ve never been abused emotionally by anyone.  Their abuse is obviously their misperception of what is happening; it’s not the truth of the matter.  The truth of the matter is they have behaved badly and they most likely deserve the emotional abuse.

Who’s going to say that to another person who has EXPERIENCED ABUSE?  My non-experience cannot negate the experience of another.  It’s simply a different witness but it doesn’t nullify someone with a contrary witness.

That logic doesn’t make any clear sense.  Yet this is exactly what white people do to black people.

We discount their experiences because our perceptions of their experiences are not the same, therefore, they must be misguided and if they’d just drop pointing out to everyone that they are black this whole thing would be better…but isn’t this the epitome of bigotry and racism, thinking ourselves better than others?  Thinking our WHITE ideas (since they happen inside our white bodies) are more exact than BLACK ideas or experiences?

If our ideas are only ideas that would occur to WHITE people, and no black person within our sphere of influence would share them, should that not cause us to pause and say “hold up, maybe my idea isn’t as objective as I thought…maybe I have this idea because I am White??”

In other words, it is not that our whiteness or blackness makes the ideas; It is our skin color that allows us the experiences in life that often give formation to the ideas.

This is a distinction that even the most brilliant talking heads fail to make.

The experiences that ingrain skills, dispositions, and habits into us are usually unconscious; it happens to us without our knowing.  In academic terms it becomes what Pierre Bourdieu calls our habitus.  But there is good news; we are not doomed to our habitus forever.

Bourdieu notes, “Habitus is not the fate that some people read into it.  Being a product of history, it is an open system of dispositions that is constantly subjected to experiences, and therefore, constantly affected by them in a way that either reinforces or modifies its structures.  It is durable BUT NOT ETERNAL [my bold].  Having said this, I must immediately add that there is a probability, inscribed in social destiny associated with definite social conditions, that experiences will confirm habitus, because most people are statistically bound to encounter circumstances that tend to agree with those that originally fashioned their habitus.”

To break this down further, one might say we think, act and are disposed in particular ways because of our particular histories.  Our history provides us with normative habits we can live by and use to make sense of the world.  Our habits also usually decided for us in that they are the result of our social/linguistic conditions (religious, economic, political, sexual, etc.) and experiences therein. Further, this means that one is most likely to encounter the world in ways that agree with those already framed dispositions or habits.

In other words, you think like a white person because you are white and all that goes along with that…even if you fail to realize it.

The silver lining to this, however, is that habtius is an OPEN SYSTEM OF DISPOSITIONS that is subject to our experiences.  As that which forms due to our experiences, it can also be re-formed by new ones.  We are not stuck being suspicious of certain groups of people.  We are not stuck with certain opinions or views.  The goodnews of Bourdieu is, while habitus can provide insight into why we do what we do, and who we are, we do have the possibility to change when we encounter new experiences that challenge our current habitus!

Did you hear me, we can change!  We are not doomed!

This week, I sat in a room with black colleagues who shared their experiences. Their experience didn’t attempt to negate dead police officers.  Their experience didn’t attempt to say cops never kill white people.  It was just their stories and how these events impacted them.  It wasn’t an either/or; it was “this whole situation sucks…here is why I am.”

One black mother shared how she has to give her sons the talk about how to behave in a car for fear of being pulled over because they are black young men.  She spoke of the fear of when her 15 year old will get his license and whether she should make him wait a few more years to drive for fear of what can happen to a young black man in a car alone.

A black father spoke of the pain this produced inside him, how this impacted his community and how he was paying for his kids to talk to a counselor to make sense of all this.

An older black woman said, “I know this is a new problem for many of you, but I have been living with this problem for 60 years.  This is not new…and in our community we have known this.  I am glad many of you are now finally getting to see what we live every day.”

These comments were in sharp juxtaposition to comments I was seeing on facebook and twitter, all by white people.

Rather than see their status as white people, as privileged people, who will never have to fear that their young boys will get pulled over or fear of being followed through a grocery store because of their skin color, they commented as if they were sages…pronouncing objective truth from inside their white bodies.

Comments such as “it doesn’t matter if you are white, black or blue, we don’t have a race problem in this country, we have a death culture”…Ah, yes, spoken as only a white guy can who has never experienced racial profiling.

On the radio, hosts scream at the top of their lungs about why the President and others keep talking about white this and white that, black this and black that, ostensibly saying we only have a race problem because you all keep talking about it!  Again, only a white person can say something like this.  It’s not that black or white people want to have race as a central issue; it’s that it is a central issue regardless of what we want…and it seems that the only class or race saying it’s not a problem is the race that has never suffered persecution in this country because of their skin color!  Shouldn’t this cause white folks to pause and ask “Why are we the only ones saying this?”

Another great white response is to deflect attention from this violence and pin it on other issues, such as black single parent statistics and children raised in single parent, poverty stricken homes.  This move simply keeps the white person from actually taking a stand against brutality or racism and says that the real problem isn’t “you all” or “them” getting profiled, it’s the black community having so many dead beat dads.

Again, only a white person can say this.  It lacks any sense of empathy to relate to black people and their history with police.

And finally, here is a laundry list of comments by white people that attempts to deflect issues of race, “I didn’t own slaves, I don’t know what they are so mad about…that was 150 years ago, they should get over it…if black people wouldn’t talk about race than race wouldn’t be an issue…This is not my fault…the cops wouldn’t have shot him if they didn’t have good reason…don’t be in the wrong place and bad things won’t happen…black on black crime is the real problem, not police brutality…why do just black lives matter, don’t all lives matter…why do they have that chip on their shoulder anyhow, it’s just a crutch to keep race an issue…why do they keep complaining, if they would go find jobs and get off government they wouldn’t have these problems”

And these same white people that make these comments say we don’t have a race problem.  Uh huh.  And on and on and on.

I have heard all this and more, in person and online.  And I, admittedly, used to think of some of these same responses…but I did so, not out of attempting to empathize with the black community, but because I was white and I was unable to see the world outside of my white experiences, and therefore, my white habitus.

But this past week, I woke up and I realized I am white.  It had been a long time coming, but I have finally saw myself in a very literal way, as the skin that covers who I am.  Of course I am not just my skin color, but at the least whatever I am does involve my skin color.  I can no more separate my person from my body than my body from my person…and this means my whiteness and my being are linked…but that doesn’t mean I can’t change.

But Nate, you seem like a thoughtful guy, how could you have held even one of those ideas as an opinion???  First, I am sorry that I have not always thought rightly about race.  Since living in Atlanta and Nashville I have actually enjoyed the difference and it is what I miss about large cities.   I have not been prejudiced for a long time, but I have also never seen my whiteness as clear as I do now.  I have never knowingly done a racist thing but I cannot say I have never had a racist or bigoted based thought.  For these unspoken sentiments I ask for forgiveness.

I believe Jesus once said something about seeking forgiveness for thoughts of the heart and not just actions of the hands.

Why would I have ever had those ideas?

Well.  I’m 35 and I am white.  I’m Protestant.  I am old enough to have had grandparents that referred to candy as “n#**#r toes” not as a conscious attempt to be mean, but as a subconscious linguistic association about black people.  I am old enough to have been told when I was younger to not go to certain parts of town, “where the blacks live…in boogeytown.”  I am old enough to have ridden in cars and been told “lock your doors, we are going through a bad neighborhood.”  The only people I saw on the corners were black people.

I am white enough to have not had much interaction with black people except on school sports teams.  My family did not have any black friends growing up.

No, I wasn’t raised to hate black people.  I wasn’t raised to hate anyone, but I was raised with a subtle racism, inculturated within me, so that fear of black people and difference was part of the story as a child.

That fear shaded my adult life where it bred my inability to see my own privilege as a white male.  Now, at 35, I’m still white, but it’s worse, I am white, educated, have a good job, have a position in the church, and I don’t have any close black friends…only acquaintances.  Given all this how would I see otherwise??

The problem, however, is that this fear can breed misunderstanding.  Misunderstanding can breed apathy, or even worse, it can breed hate and bigotry.

Privilege doesn’t mean that society gave me stuff or that I didn’t have to work for what I have.  I did work hard; no one gave me anything.  All my degrees and work based accomplishments were earned.  Privilege simply means I did not face any societal obstacles or experience public disadvantages or scrutiny because of my skin color.  I was, and am, free to move about the country.  From what I understand, this is also what black people want, the ability to work hard and move about freely, providing themselves and their families with a good, secure life.

As a white man (who usually votes libertarian), I am now aware of my privilege.  I couldn’t see it before, but now, with the help of black and white colleagues, I see it.  Yet I do not understand how being aware of that privilege and acknowledging that black people in general do not enjoy that same privilege is a liberal or conservative observation.  Why is this a republican or democratic issue?  Seems to me this is just finally seeing the elephant in the room.

I am not black.  I am now aware that my experience cannot speak for or in place of a black experience.  It is unfair of me to impute my white eyes over a situation and impute that understanding on black people that have a much different experience.  I’m aware that I do not see the world as my black colleagues.  I don’t fear for my three sons growing up that they will be stopped and harassed by police.

I can speak of equality as an ideal because I am white.  I can criticize my black brothers and sisters for making a big deal of this or that police brutality and I can point to the “facts of the case” and justify why officers did what they did, but all that does is tell the black community (who has suffered these recent losses as well as many losses we will never know) that I am blind, deaf and therefore too dumb to speak as an advocate for a community that bears the brunt of police violence at the hands of white silence.

I want to be a partner and neighbor with all people, but at this time especially with my black colleagues.  I want to insure that their children can grow up feeling safe.  I want my fellow black Americans to feel safe when they are stopped by police.  I want police to feel safe around black people and not assume guilt when they make a traffic stop or question kids on the street corner.  I want an equitable world that looks like white people and black people sharing in this nation and helping one another achieve rather than pointing at the others deficiencies.  To quote MLK, I too want to see a world where children and people will not be “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

We are not there yet…we are not there yet.

I used to think this country didn’t have a race problem, but as I have watched and listened to stories and media I have come to an epiphany: We do have a race problem and denial by those who have NEVER been marginalized doesn’t solve this problem…it just means they are clueless and it places our collective societal goals at risk in order to assuage a white peace of mind.