pain

No Easy Road to Freedom

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THE KILLING OF 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year and the events that followed sparked protests by the community in the St. Louis area asserting that black lives matter and ignited a discussion on race relations in the United States.

On the heels of non-indictments in the slaying of Brown and other black men, our nation focused its attention on the drastic inconsistencies inherent in our judicial system. To many observers, black lives had less standing in our nation than white lives.

Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and the churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., are part of a long list of black victims of violence. They are victims of an American narrative that devalues black souls, black lives, black bodies, and black minds. In response to these tragic events, particularly since the non-indictment of the police officers who killed Brown and Garner, many evangelicals have been calling for a biblical practice that is often absent in American Christianity—the call to lament.

On one level I am thrilled that evangelicals are discovering the importance of lament in dealing with racial injustice. However, I am concerned that the way lament is being used by some white evangelicals is a watered-down, weak lament that is no lament at all.

Lament is not simply feeling bad that Brown won’t be able to go to college. Lament is not simply feeling sad that Garner’s kids no longer have a father. Lament is not asserting your right to confront the police because, as a white person, you won’t be treated in the same way that a black protester may be treated. Lament is not the passive acceptance of tragedy. Lament is not weakly assenting to the status quo. Lament is not simply the expression of sorrow in order to assuage feelings of guilt and the burden of responsibility.

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Why God Is Sending Christians Straight to Hell

Mindok / Shutterstock.com
Mindok / Shutterstock.com

So much of Christianity has become about avoiding hell. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a hospital chaplain, it’s that God is sending Christians straight to hell.

Christians need to stop thinking of heaven and hell as primarily places we go after we die. Heaven and hell are primarily realities that we experience here on earth.

Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is among you.” For Jesus, the kingdom of God, also known in the Gospels as the kingdom of Heaven, is a present reality. You don’t have to wait until after death. In fact, you shouldn’t wait because it’s here. It’s now. It’s among you.

Now, if the kingdom of God is a present reality, we can safely assume that hell is also a present reality. In fact, the word Jesus frequently used for “hell” was the term Gehenna. Gehenna was well known in the ancient city of Jerusalem as “the valley of the son of Hinnom.” Within the valley was a place called Topheth, where people would sacrifice their children, thinking that God demanded this sacrificial violence. As the prophet Jeremiah explains, this hell on earth is a purely human creation and God had nothing to do with this hell. Jeremiah said about those who sacrifice their children, “And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come to my mind.”

God doesn’t command the fires of hell; it doesn’t even come to God’s mind! Who, then, does command those fires? We do! René Girard said it succinctly in his book The Scapegoat, “[We] create [our] own hell and help one another descend into it.”

Hell is a place of suffering caused by spiritual, emotional, and physical violence. What does the kingdom of Heaven do when confronted with the violence of hell? The kingdom of Heaven goes straight into it.

The Many Ways to Love Like a Mother

Child with mother, arek_malang / Shutterstock.com
Child with mother, arek_malang / Shutterstock.com

As a mental health professional and a mom, I have come to appreciate the incredible importance of family relationships on the development and maturation of children. I’ve also realized that the archetypal family relationships worshipped in our (Christian and secular) culture often have little to do with the real sweat and blood of family life.

My husband and I have a running joke that one day we will start an “ambiguous family relationships” greeting card company. Our imaginary company is designed for those experiencing family situations that aren’t exactly addressed on the cheerful card aisle. Mother’s Day is prime among those occasions that seems to call for our imaginary company’s services. While the consumerist culture portrays images of wonderful family relationships rewarding the hardworking mom with leisure and jewelry, Mother’s Day is not joy and leisure for all. It can be a time of irony and pain for those who have experienced relationship loss, infertility, miscarriage, separation, or death. Mother’s Day in many ways has become a cultural enforcement of the middle class ideal rather than recognition of the real pain and sacrifice of mothers worldwide.

Those Who Know Where Pain Lives: A Treatise on Presence

Silhouette of man in front of sunset, Galyna Andrushko / Shutterstock.com
Silhouette of man in front of sunset, Galyna Andrushko / Shutterstock.com

Last year, I wrote about my journey from forcing joy to finding that love is what is everlasting, not joy — that we sometimes hear and believe that Jesus only lives in the places of our lives where we recognize him with joy. But that that is not true.

And so, almost as an afterthought, I've been thinking lately of other ideals that Christians hold as truth, somehow in the process giving a lifeless principle more weight than a Living Christ who reveals himself beyond what can be wrapped up with words and smacked with a theological bow.

Like the concept of Presence.

We know and rest our restless hearts in the idea that Jesus is with us always, lo, even unto the very end of the age. A God who never leaves us or forsakes us. And this is good. We sing songs and pray prayers and feel goose bumps and know that it is true … at least in those moments.

But what about the God who seems to be known by God’s absence as much as by God’s presence? What happens when we don't feel God’s proximity uninterrupted?

VIDEO: A Soldier of Conscience

As Mary Margaret Alvarado writes in The Beginning of the End of War in the January 2014 issue of Sojourners, Joshua Casteel was deployed to Iraq in 2004 to serve as an interrogator in Abu Grahib. While there, Joshua came to the strong understanding that his role as a soldier did not align with his beliefs as a Christian. Before dying of lung cancer in 2011, Joshua wrote and spoke out as a conscientious objector.

“Soldiers of Conscience,” a 2007 documentary, follows eight Iraq War soldiers as they face the moral decision to kill an enemy combatant. In this clip, Joshua describes his “crystallization of consciousness,” or the moment he realized the call to peacemaking requires one to truly love one’s enemies.

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The Beginning of the End of War

LATELY I’VE been reading my dead friend’s files. That’s how I know that he often typed in Cambria. That’s how I know that he drafted beginning-to-end, reworking early paragraphs before he set down the next—which is why so much of his writing just stops. That’s how I know that as a child he held press conferences in a White House made of cardboard boxes, wearing a clip-on tie, and that the night before he began school at West Point (a school he’d soon leave), he and his father smoked cigars on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, though his father did not like cigars. That’s how I know how much he thought about pain, which to Heidegger is “the rift,” a “separating that gathers,” and to Wittgenstein is “a having, not a knowing,” and to Elaine Scarry is an “objectless experience” that “destroys language.”

This thinking was for classes at the University of Iowa and the University of Chicago, and this thinking was for other people, namely prisoners and fellow soldiers in the War on Terror, which was also the Global War on Terrorism, and was the Iraq War and is still the War in Northwest Pakistan and the War in Afghanistan, a subset of which is “Operation Enduring Freedom,” and is also and continues to be World War III or World War IV, depending on how you count, and was once The War Against Al-Qaeda and is now the Overseas Contingency Operation, which has been tidily renamed CVE (Countering Violent Extremism).

Joshua Casteel was sent to the Long War after first enlisting in the Army Reserves as a high school junior in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Seven years later he was stationed at Abu Ghraib prison as an interrogator and linguist. This is where he became convicted that he could no longer be an “American war fighter,” which he saw as treason against his “real kingdom and home.”

In Letters from Abu Ghraib, a book of correspondence from this time, Joshua wrote to his parents:

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Why I Cry in Church

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Skeptics might say that as a perimenopausal woman with a teenage daughter, I’m apt to cry at the slightest provocation, which may be true. But I believe something different happens when we expose our vulnerabilities in a community of faith.

A close friend told me her theory that we are being “seasoned” in church each week, preparing to be broken open in ways we cannot anticipate. So we pray the liturgy, sing the hymns, go through the motions. Yet this seasoning of our spirits prepares us to be tender-hearted, open to prayer working on us.

This makes sense to me. There are so few places where we can bring our raw emotions without a self-conscious need to explain or escape to the nearest bathroom, which happens when we get teary-eyed at work or in line at Home Depot. Perhaps church is one of those last safe havens, where we can cry in public for no reason.

Learning to Take It Slow

marekuliasz / shutterstock
slow down - lifestyle concept. marekuliasz / Shutterstock

When I alerted my readers that I would be taking time off from writing to recover from surgery, many sent me kind words with a common theme: “Take time to heal.”

“Give your body time to heal,” said one. “Rest and sleep,” said another. “Be sure to take ALL the time you need for a full recovery!” and “Don't try to power through. Stop, lie down and rest. ... We will still be here.”

I was hearing the wisdom of experience: been there, didn't take the time, thought I was healed, wasn't.

That certainly has been my experience from previous times of loss and stress. I haven't always taken enough time to heal. I moved on too soon, when my head, in effect, was still woozy.

Even now, a week after surgery, I find my mind drifting off. I will be thinking through a sentence and find I have jumped tracks. I will need to read the same page of a novel several times and replay a scene in a recorded TV show.

So this time I am taking time. No rushing back to work, no making important decisions, no feeling impatient to have my wits fully about me.

On Lamentation

Photo: Southern Stock / Getty Images
Photo: Southern Stock / Getty Images

This morning I read and sang this canticle.

Come, let us sing to the Lord;
 let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation.
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving
 and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.
For the Lord is a great God,
 and a great king above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth,
 and the heights of the hills are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
 and his hands have moulded the dry land.
Come, let us bow down and bend the knee,
 and kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For he is our God,
   and we are the people of his pasture
   and the sheep of his hand.
 O that today you would hearken to his voice!

   Psalm 95:1-7 (Venite)

Then I lamented. I lamented the work of human beings to tear down what God holds in God's hands. I lamented that my friends in the peace movement callously sent a press release decrying the gun lobby within what seemed like moments after the smoke cleared in Aurora. I lamented the inane anti-Darwinian posture of other Christians. We're all looking for something to blame. We cannot simply sit in our sackcloth and our ashes and lament ... lament our own failure, lament the actions of someone raised in church, lament our inability to protect the innocent, lament our powerlessness.

We cannot and will not lament our powerlessness. We need to learn how. 

Clinging to Christ in Compounded Grief

Fog and light photo, lussiya  / Shutterstock.com
Fog and light photo, lussiya / Shutterstock.com

“It was like a scene out of a movie.”

I’ve heard that phrase a few too many times in the past month.  

On June 26, after the third consecutive 100-plus-degree day, residents of northwest Colorado Springs fled their neighborhoods with a few belongings shoved in their cars as a wildfire came barreling down the mountainside. The billows of smoke and inferno flames, calculated to be three stories high, could be seen from anywhere in the city. It was like a scene out of a movie.

In the early morning hours on July 4, I received the text that I had been dreading: “Cliffy is with Jesus.” After a six-year battle with cancer, my biggest cheerleader, friend, and mentor, Cliff Anderson, died in hospice. Two months prior, Cliff was sharing his wisdom and offering his typical words of encouragement at a retreat for GreenHouse Ministry, an intentional community that we started together in Colorado Springs. But shortly after that weekend the diagnosis became clear. This incurable type of cancer was going to win, sooner rather than later. Watching his decline felt like watching a tragic movie.

At the midnight premiere of the new Batman movie, Dark Night Rises, on July 20 in a suburb of Denver, a gunman opened fire on a packed theater, killing 12 and injuring more than 50 people Witnesses to the shooting said it was like something out of a movie. The scene was an eerie echo of another mass shooting in a different Denver suburb 13 years ago at Columbine High School. Could this really be happening again?

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