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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
“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?
Usually when I hear people talk about finding the good in the midst of a difficult situation, my cynical radar goes up. I picture the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where Brian and the two thieves are being crucified while whistling and singing “Always look on the bright side of life.”
I reminds me a girl named Cathy that I knew in high school who already lived on her own before she had even graduated. At school she was the perpetual ray of sunshine, always offering warm smiles and hugs, but hardly concealing a deeper undercurrent of sadness that you could nearly taste.
But once in a while, we have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of grace in the middle of the worst humanity has to offer. And it’s in those moments that I tend to recognize God in our midst.
This is true of any bad news, really. When I feel sick. When I don’t get my way. When I’ve had a bad day. You name it. If it’s negative, then I look forward to sharing it. I don’t mean to; I just do.
I sense this is normal, but it doesn’t make it right.
As I lay on the kitchen floor -- my body rocking with sobs, my mouth telling my husband, "I hate my life" -- it never occurred to me to pick up the phone and call a friend.
To tell someone about the life I was living, in which over the last few years rug after rug kept getting pulled out from under me -- my parents divorced, my husband's business tanked, our debt rose, health issues loomed, and our marriage sagged under the weight of it all -- was not something I was wired to do.
In fact, I was mortified when my husband rounded the bend and saw me there, sprawled out on the tile, weeping. Crying and hurting is something I do best alone.