The emotional, physical, and spiritual violence that we inflict on one other is a sign that something is amiss in our world. A study from the World Health Organization paints the terrible truth that sex workers have a heightened risk of HIV. The sex and drug industry “tear up women and use them ‘til they throw them out" as Rev. Rebecca Stevens, Executive Director of Magdalene Ministries, says. Magdalene is a recovery program in Nashville, Tenn. for women who have histories of substance abuse and prostitution. Stevens has helped countless women get off the streets and put their lives back together. Yet there are so many more in need. It is clear that something is persistently bent on the annihilation of our bodies and souls. What can we say or do?
The widow of the longtime minister of the Anglo-American congregation that housed our Korean immigrant church taught us Sunday mornings. She would open our gathering time together with this question: “What is the chief end of man?” We would all respond with the proper answer: “Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever!” we would sing-song it together not really understanding the words.
Even at 10 years old I felt the weight of centuries behind those words. Somehow it felt like the perfect answer to anything and everything. Later, when I went away to college, I would remember these words and they would be like a flickering light in those dark times of isolation and loneliness. It was a reminder that our lives are meant for so much more even if we sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees.
In college I began to sense a call to ministry. I felt compelled to become an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church as my own way to "glorify God" and “enjoy him forever.” Yet, the only examples in ministry I had were the typical white, male pastors and staff of para-church organizations. I felt uncertain.
It seemed the leader of any organization was expected to be strong — someone with a strong will. Strong focus. Strong vision. Strong command. Strong abilities. I didn’t feel I had the charisma of a leader who could not only inspire, but direct, move, and act decisively.
Hebrews invites us to consider an alternative vision of leadership in Christ, the High Priest. Instead of power, the writer describes Jesus’ service in terms of compassion and mercy, even citing weakness as the source of his efficacy as high priest. Even though he was a Son, “he learned obedience through what he suffered,” and we hear an echo of the familiar hymn from Philippians 2:
he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death —
even death on a cross.
It is this Christ that tells us we are worthy, walks with us through trouble and calls us out of violence into an abundant life.
I reflect on this kind of life in light of recent news out of Indiana University, located in the small town of Bloomington, Ind. where I currently serve with the Presbyterian Campus Ministry. One of IU’s Greek fraternities was shut down because of a hazing incident that involved a pledge being forced to perform oral sex on a stripper while dozens of half-naked frat brothers cheered him on. In the last month at IU, two students died — one was murdered by her boyfriend and the death of the other is still under investigation.
As staff for the Presbyterian campus ministry I echo the words of my colleague Sarah Sparks-Franklin in a Facebook post:
Everyday, I drive by the [fraternity] house on my way into church to spend hours of my week working to build connections to college students/ young adults. I want them to know they are not alone. That they are loved, accepted, and beautiful...That to be a part of our community requires no initiation, no list of requirements, no pressure to "fit in" to a particular stereotype, look a certain way, down enough shots at a party, adhere to some list of legalistic expectations, or to perform at the top of their classes. It simply requires them to show up, and we will love them like Jesus loves them, no strings attached.
Most days the promise of love and acceptance, healing and redemption is a difficult one to swallow as we continue in these seasons of uncertainty beset by terror and violence at so many levels all around us. So much in this world tells we are of no value, we are not worthy, we do not matter. It is hard not to believe it.
Yet, we have a high priest who intervenes for us — not as a distant and detached deity, but as a flesh-and-blood creature that walked among us. Jesus experienced those same forces bent on his own destruction. He came out, scars and wounds still present, but fully alive, full of the promise of healing and redemption. That promise is offered to us, too, always.
The beautiful, strong women of Magdalene who overcame the worst offer us a glimpse of that incredible grace. God promises to show up over and over for the sake of our salvation, but also, for our fully-alive lives. I cling to that sacramental truth when we gather in churches and vigils, protests and services, in houses and meetings.
I can only say, as I often do during communion when I partake of the bread and cup: Thanks be to God. I do so trusting and hoping that there is more beyond the forests of our world’s darkness.