The Common Good

Green Pastures and Valleys of Death

Last week was one in which what God envisions for our world seemed so very, very far away.

We watched in horror last Monday as two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. We wept as we heard about the death of an 8-year-old boy, a 23-year-old grad student, a 29-year-old restaurant manager. We shuddered as we thought about the 170 people injured in the bombings, many of them losing feet or legs. We asked why. Why did this happen? How could human beings do this to others?

Tuesday, we learned about poisoned letters being sent to elected officials. Real poison, not just the poisonous words that are so much of our political dialogue. Is this really what God envisioned for us?

Then on Wednesday came two powerful bits of news. Whatever you feel about the proper way to deal with guns in our society, the debate over expanding background checks brought right back to the surface the grief of the parents and families of those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December.

It brought back the horror of all the other recent mass shootings in our country, embodied in Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) as she watched the vote in the Senate. Then she wrote a powerful essay in the New York Times, saying, “To do nothing while others are in danger is not the American way.”

That sentiment could not have been more vividly illustrated later Wednesday evening when a fertilizer plant in West, Texas exploded, killing at least 14. Eleven of the dead were volunteer firefighters who had raced into the burning plant to evacuate people. Then the building blew up around them. They acted when others were in danger. And we are left to wonder how indifference to the safety of others clashes with God’s vision for our world.

We were still absorbing all of that when Thursday evening, we learned that a campus police officer at MIT in Cambridge had been shot dead in his squad car. Soon it became clear that the aftershocks of the Boston Marathon bombings were playing out on the streets of Cambridge and Watertown, Massachusetts.

And then Friday the drama intensified as the whole city of Boston came to a standstill and the rest of the nation held its breath as the frantic search for the second suspect stretched across the day until a badly wounded Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was taken into custody Friday evening. Amidst the cheers of relief and gratitude to police was a nasty undercurrent of misdirected hostility toward all Muslims, toward all immigrants.

As if that was not enough, here in Wisconsin we went through a week when the cold and snowy late-April weather here, while not at all catastrophic, offered an uncomfortable reminder of how these shifting weather patterns do offer glimpses of the kinds of actual catastrophes ahead with climate change.

This is not how I think God envisioned the world to be. The events of last week push each of us to consider how we define ourselves in a world that contains both good and evil, how we define ourselves when elements of good and evil inhabit each of our beings.

The events of last week challenge us to find ways to respond consistent with the way of Jesus.

Yet before we can get to that, we just need a break. Last week was too intense, too filled with worry and grief, too far out of the control of any one of us. So this day, the first thing we need to do is to step back for a moment.

Listen to these words from one of our scripture readings this Sunday:

The Lord is my shepherd.
I shall not want.

God makes me lie down in green pastures.
God leads me beside still waters.
God restores my soul.

Let those words settle into your beings. 

And let me read some other words, written in that same spirit, by Kentucky author and poet Wendell Berry, called “The Peace of Wild Things.”

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Take a moment, then, before more words cascade over you, and put yourself in one of those places in your life where God restores your soul, where you can rest in the grace of the world and be free.

(Pause and reflect)

The Lord is my shepherd … He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

Where are those right paths that we are supposed to be following? 

Let me suggest that in the events of the past week, there are paths we can walk. It’s not like they are easy. They don’t stay put in those green pastures and by those still waters. They can take us through those valleys marked by the shadows of death. But they lead us to a place where God will be.

Joyce Hollyday, co-pastor of the Circle of Mercy community in Asheville, N.C., writes, “Indeed, there have been days when this Jesus has been a shepherd I would rather not follow. I know his voice; but sometimes his call feels like much more than I ever bargained for. It is impossible to follow this shepherd without walking into pain — one's own as well as that of the world. It is impossible to follow without understanding the cross and the commandment to pour ourselves out … for enemy and friend.”

I would describe one of the paths before us now as a path of compassion.

The journey on that path starts fairly easily. We hold in our hearts the victims of the bombs, of the gunfight, of the fertilizer factory blast.

We hold in our hearts all the first responders who put their lives on the line this week and their families who worried about them every minute of each day.

We hold all those whose lives have been turned upside down this week in big or in small ways.

For all of them, we light a candle of compassion.

Yes, recognizing their pain takes us back through that desolate valley, but it also helps carry them through these painful times.

The next few steps on the path of compassion are a bit harder. We embrace those who are being attacked because of their faith or their ethnicity or their immigration status for something to which they had no connection.

Muslims, in Boston and across the nation, joined in the denunciations of this madness within hours of the attacks on the marathon. While the older brother may have been immersing himself in the Islamic faith, he was misreading much of what it teaches. 

As someone said yesterday, most Muslims view these brothers about the same way most Christians view the offensive behavior of the folks at Westboro Baptist Church or the actions of those who in the name of Christ bomb abortion clinics. Yet Muslims, immigrants are once again feeling very vulnerable in our midst.

In his song “Nebraska,” Bruce Springsteen tells the story of a young man who picks up a girl and goes on a murderous rampage across Nebraska and Wyoming. The song ends with him facing execution and he says, “They wanted to know why I did what I did. Well, sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world.” 

Eboo Patel, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, observed that the nihilism in that song “may be better window into soul of bombers than any identity or ideology.”

So we light a candle as we hold in compassion those who bear the demonic anger of people whose prejudices blind them.

Now that road of compassion gets very challenging. What are we to do with the two brothers? With their families? 

Here’s where the words of our shepherd are really hard to hear. Remember those words? They came during the Sermon on the Mount:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

How do we do that? One of them is dead. The other is in serious condition, but probably will survive … only to face the federal death penalty.

Jesus was not talking about the legal disposition for people who commit murder. He was talking about what we do within ourselves toward those who would do harm to us or to those we love. He was telling us to still recognize that they are human beings made in God’s image even if that divine image has been badly tarnished. He was inviting us to pray for them.

Remember, in Psalm 23, God prepared a table for us in the presence of our enemies. While we were there, God anointed our heads with oil and our cups overflowed. And so we light a candle for our enemies, in the hope that God’s love will triumph over all evil in our world.

Where else does this path of compassion take us? It’s gotten a bit uncomfortable, hasn’t it? It might also take us to those places in the world where people live daily with the fear that Boston experienced this past week.

It could take us on the path to school with Palestinian children in Hebron who are taken into custody by Israeli soldiers.

It could take us into the homes of Israelis on the border with Gaza not knowing when a missile will strike their village.

It could take us to families in Iraq who don’t know what will happen when they go our on a simple shopping trip. It could take us to a village in Darfur, when any moment murderous forces may descend in the night.

Robert Randolph is the chaplain at MIT. He saw the face of evil up close this week. Here’s what he wrote for the Huffington Post: “We see the world through new eyes… Look evil in the eye, affirm your love for one another and step forward. That takes a courage that can banish fear.”

This is a hard part of the path our shepherd has been leading us on. It is good that there are places like Memorial where we can gather together and support one another along this path. It is good that there are places with green pastures and still waters where we can regroup. 

I would like to wrap up with one thought from a story from the Acts of the Apostles that was part of Sunday’s scripture readings. I think it also tells us something about walking the right paths for God’s sake.

The story describes how Peter, the Apostle, was called to the house of Tabitha, one of the many women who played a significant role among those early Christians. She had died and Peter brought her back to life.

You can read this as a simple miracle story, a story that enhances Peter’s stature in the early church. But here’s another way of thinking about it, offered by scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann:

“God has entrusted to the church the capacity to defy death and evoke life. Imagine a world peopled by those unafraid of death. Those who join this narrative may cease to be ‘arms dealers’ and become gift givers who share the water of life.”

I think that’s the path the shepherd is calling us to. We start with compassion for those who are suffering, for those who are persecuted, even for those who persecute us.

But then we move on to the next path, where we begin to bring life out of the death we find around us.

We build the bridges that connect people, we care for the earth that nourishes everyone, we seek justice in a world where wealth too often tramples over those with little.

Then, surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives and we will live in the house of the Lord forever.

Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis.

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