The Four Waiting Rooms of Christmas – Wilderness

 
1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Matthew 3:1-12

 
This year during Advent the Gospel of Matthew invites us to sit in, what we are calling, The Waiting Rooms of Christmas: Apocalypse, Wilderness, Prison and Public Disgrace. These strange and frightening waiting rooms mirror the all too familiar experience of vulnerable urban communities throughout our network, and are timely reminders of the challenges facing contemporary society. Each waiting room yields its own gift. This week we see how the wilderness yields the garden of grace growing in our midst.
 
The prophet cries out from the wilderness, “Every valley will be filled and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough ways made smooth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Is. 40:3-5). It’s an outlandish claim that borders on delusion given the difficult conditions that people were enduring at the time.
 
Like all the prophets, John the Baptist recognizes the massive upheaval that God’s Word induces and calls forth from humanity. It is not always obvious in the moment, but when viewed from the long arc of history, we see God’s Word at work in the world doing “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:21). And this abundance is happening now!
 
Really?
 
Advent hope is unflinching. It names the cruelty and injustice we inflict upon each other without hesitation. It also names a deeper truth. There is a great leveling taking place. Valleys of injustice are being filled. Mountains of cruelty are being brought low. Crooked deals are being set straight. Rough paths of poverty and oppression are being smoothed out.
 
But let’s be honest, there is still cruelty and injustice on a massive scale and many millions are suffering torment that is impossible to express or tolerate, much of it fueled by religion at its worst. We can and must see this. We can and must work for justice regardless of the cost. But as the poet Jack Gilbert says, “To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” We multiply the cruelty exponentially and give twisted praise to evil itself, if we deny the spiritual evolution that is taking place in our midst-one that I believe is made possible by the Incarnation.
 
As the prophet suggests, in order to see this we must repent. The word “repent” in this week’s text invokes images of moral cleansing, but the word actually means to change one’s mind, or to change the way we see. In other words, if we are to celebrate the upheaval happening in our midst we will need to “repent” and change the way we see-to see as Jesus sees.
 
The process by which all this is accomplished is easily missed because the massive transformations that are happening in our midst are occurring in the most understated and counterintuitive ways. Transformation is achieved not through might, but largely through weakness. The power of a vulnerable life is its openness to the inevitable risks that life carries. To walk in this kind of vulnerability requires a primal trust. New life is sowed in vulnerability, brought forth in vulnerability, and sustained in vulnerability. How else are we to understand the Word made flesh? What is sown in vulnerability is harvested in the power of the Gospel itsel-the power that is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
 
The garden of grace is growing in our midst. Can you see it?
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms
 
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The Four Waiting Rooms of Christmas – Apocalypse

 
40“Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left…41Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

Matthew 24:36-44

 
It’s the first week of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year. It’s the season of longing, expectation and preparation for the coming of Jesus. Given the challenging times in which we live, perhaps repentance is also in order.
 
Over the next four weeks the Gospel lectionary texts explore what we are calling The Waiting Rooms of Christmas: Apocalypse, Wilderness, Prison and Public Disgrace-not exactly Hallmark rooms of pleasantry and warmth. These strange and frightening waiting rooms mirror the all too familiar experience of vulnerable urban communities throughout our network, and are timely reminders of the challenges facing contemporary society. Each waiting room yields its own gift. Apocalypse unveils the gift of peace. Wilderness yields the garden of grace. Prison unleashes the gifts of faith and freedom. Public Disgrace calls forth the most precious gift of all-Emmanuel, “God is with us.” Yes, God is with us in all the waiting rooms of life, transforming the waiting room, the waiter, and even the waiting itself by God’s very presence.
 
This week we sit in the first waiting room of Christmas-the Apocalypse.
 
If we use Tim LaHaye’s method of interpretation popularized by the Left Behind series (more than 63 million sold), then in this week’s passage Jesus is saying that when he returns to judge the world, the good guys will be “taken” away to be with God (i.e. raptured), and the bad guys will be “left behind” to suffer untold torments. Therefore, WATCH OUT! In other words, Jesus is coming back and boy is he mad!
 
There is another way to read this text.
 
Apocalypse means “unveiling.” It’s about seeing things as they really are. That’s what apocalyptic literature is trying to do-name the stuff that we want to deny! When we see this passage through the eyes of Jesus, perhaps being left behind is not such a bad thing. Here’s what I mean.
 
Jesus begins the passage by recalling the stormy days of Noah when “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). It seems clear to me that the flood that Jesus is referring to is more than a flood of water. It’s the flood of violence that “swept away” the people. Noah and his family were not taken by the massive outbreak of violence. They did not drown in the ever-descending spiral of retribution and vengeance. Instead, they were left behind in the ark of peace.
 
In Christ, we too are left behind. We are called out of the violence that so easily sweeps us away. The phrase “left behind” can also be translated as “forgiven.” This is the key to the text. It is through forgiveness and the gift of mercy made real in Jesus that we escape the growing contagion of violence that is flooding the world, and our hearts, at the price of our own humanity. It is only as we come to discover ourselves as forgiven that we are set free to seek peace and reclaim the humanity we have forsaken.
 
Jesus then shifts the image of the flood to the image of a thief who comes in the middle of the night. This is an equally terrifying image unless, perhaps, we are talking about a good thief. Unlike Satan, who is the thief who comes to “steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10), Jesus is the good thief who comes to take away only one thing-the sins of the world. He breaks into our waiting rooms of doom with the gift of grace. The good thief comes quietly, humbly and without fanfare, as a child, or perhaps like a Hobbit, while we are asleep to what’s really going on. He is the good thief who smuggles mercy into the apocalyptic prisons of our own making, that we might wake up and discover ourselves left behind (forgiven) and set free.
 
Can we see? The apocalypse is not God’s wrath poured on us. It’s our wrath poured out on each other and projected onto God. It’s Jesus who unveils this craziness and gives us the gift of peace. This is the promise of the Incarnation and the gift being given in the first waiting room of Christmas.
 
Wait and see.
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms
 
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The Way of the Cross?

 

35″If he is the Messiah, let him save himself.”

Luke: 23:33-43

 
“Build that wall! Build that wall”
“Go back to where you came from.”
“Pack your bags! Pack your bags!”
 
On the heels of a divisive and highly contested election season in the U.S., we are seeing mocking and taunting on a grand scale: on playgrounds, college campuses, airports, shopping malls, in social media and the streets.
 
I was taught that the way to fight playground mockers was to recite this: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I hate to say this, but it’s a lie. Words and name-calling do hurt. The intent behind the words hurt. They diminish the humanity of everyone involved-including the mocker.
 
This passage of scripture, if nothing else, is a snapshot of the mocking and taunting experienced by Jesus while he was physically vulnerable, hanging nearly naked on a cross.
 
“The leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”…
 
The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,
and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
 
And finally, one of the criminals who was hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
 
In this passage, there are more details about the mocking than the actual crucifixion itself.
 
Each of these taunts challenges Jesus’ identity. They mirror Satan’s temptations in the desert that begin with: “If you are the Son of God.”
 
At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and at the end of his life, his identity, who he was, was mocked and challenged. Ironically, at precisely the same moment, his identity was revealed-through his response.
 
Jesus was the Messiah-the one who DOESN’T save himself SO THAT he can save others, including those who mocked him. His identity isn’t shaped by what the mockers say about him. Neither is it shaped by putting himself over and against them. Instead, he paves a holy third way outside the bounds of hate and rivalry-a way that is for both the mocked and the mocker.
 
Now it’s important to point out where Jesus is positioned in the midst of all this. He has taken sides; he is hanging on the cross next to other victims. He stands firmly on the side of the oppressed. What’s unique about his response is that, while he’s on the side of the mocked, and against mocking, he is not over and against the mockers. In a miraculous way, he has sided with the victim while forgiving the victimizer.
 
I don’t know how to do this. Sometimes I don’t even want to. I was taught that to stand up for myself and those being marginalized means to stand against oppression. I still firmly believe this. To demonize the oppressor makes this task even easier. But I also know that the call of the Gospel requires us to seriously live with this tension-to love your enemy and even to forgive them. People who oppress and marginalize others feel like enemies to me. My question and journey brings me to this: Can I stand against and still forgive?
 
As people who closely identify with Jesus, what authenticates our identity is clear. It’s how we enflesh the love of God-how we stand on the side of the oppressed, even unto death, while not standing against the oppressor. Jesus says, “Forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Is Jesus really advocating for them? Really? I’m not sure how that is even possible and yet, there it is in black and white. Can we advocate for and defend the marginalized, even while forgiving the marginalizer? Let us pray that Jesus continues to show us the way.
 
 

Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms

Stone by Stone

 
“Do not be terrified…This will give you an opportunity to testify.”

Luke: 21:5-19

 
This week’s text is difficult. It is the reminder that peacemaking is not for the faint of heart.
 
The text begins on a positive note. “Some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God” (v. 5). Jesus beholds the beautiful edifice that overlooked the city, but he sees a darker side. He says, it will soon fall, “not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 6).
 
And he was right. In 66 CE the temple did fall. It was destroyed at the hands of the Romans only three years after it had been completed. More than 3,600 Jewish people were killed, including children. The entire city went into a riot. The priesthood and the council were abolished and all Jews were expelled from the city. It was a bloodbath.
 
But clearly Jesus has more on his mind than the fall of the temple in a physical sense.
 
Keep in mind that the temple was not only beautiful, it was also a voracious sacrificial machine, which consumed thousands of innocents (animals) each day to atone for the sins of the people-all of it based on the assumption God wanted these sacrifices. The smells and sounds were not pleasant. It was a giant abbatior-a sacred slaughterhouse. Jesus had come to transform the temple into a house of prayer for all nations (Mark 11:17). James Warren writes in Compassion or Apocalypse? “Eighty percent of employment in Jerusalem depended on the temple…The twice-daily official sacrifices on the vast ever-burning altar consumed thousands of animals and forests of wood. There were cattle pens on the north side and sometimes the water of the Kidron stream where the blood was flushed became so thick that it was sold to farmers as fertilizer. Over it all hung a pall of smoke from burning flesh.”
 
Such carnage and religious butchery is odious to God, which is why Jesus repeats the prophets, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Matt. 12:7). For Jesus, it is mercy that dismantles the temple stone by stone, showing us a new way of being human. However, there is one very large problem. We don’t know how to live without our sacrificial machines that require a constant and fresh supply of victims. Without a way to ritualize violence society becomes highly unstable and we turn on each other.
 
Without sacrificial systems to contain our violence there will be “wars and insurrections” (v. 9). “Nation will rise against nation” (v.10). Even the earth will suffer. There will be “earthquakes and famines” (v 11). It’s in the context of this chaos that followers of Jesus will be arrested, persecuted and imprisoned. Parents will betray children, friends will become rivals and some of us will be put to death (v. 12, 16). Jesus does not mince words and strips away any naïve romanticism about reality.
 
Now, here’s the truly crazy part and it is filled with the transforming power of the Gospel. In the midst of all this violence Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” (v. 9). He even goes further and says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (13).
 
Are you kidding me? Testify to what?
 
In the midst of escalating violence we are called to bear witness to another way-the way of mercy revealed on the cross. The Crucified One reveals to us that there is no violence in God whatsoever. In other words, there is no such thing as redemptive violence. There is only redemptive suffering that refuses to return violence for violence. That is our witness!
 
In the end, mercy transforms the temple of our hearts from stone to flesh (Ez 36:26). This confounds the world. Jesus says, “none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (v. 15) such a witness. If we take the long view, it’s true. Stone by stone, hearts are turned to flesh. Love wins!
 
This is the hope of the world and God knows our world can use a little hope right about now.
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Children of the Resurrection

 
38“Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”

Luke 20:27-38

 
The Gospel not only empowers us to see, but to see from a particular vantage point-through the unconstrained eyes of a child. It is an invitation to see from within the reality of the resurrection.
 
Jesus is now in Jerusalem. On the way, he stops to weep over Jerusalem before taking time to cleanse the temple. He then engages in a series of controversies with Jewish leaders who are attempting to usurp his authority. At first, they tried to do this by confronting the source of his authority. Later, they turn to the matter of paying tribute to Caesar. In our text this week, they utilize yet another angle-a question about the resurrection of the dead.
 
Neither this question, nor the preceding ones, is launched from a place of genuine, altruistic motive. The goal, rather, is to trap Jesus-to compromise his authority and sow seeds that inflame rivalry. The Sadducees are baiting Jesus with an impossible “what if” question. Anyone who has been targeted by similar religious questions-the kind raised by persons with no intention of being influenced by the answers-can empathize with the frustration of Jesus’ situation.
 
The questions come from religious leaders whose vision is limited. The Sadducees, “those who deny that there is a resurrection,” are trapped in a two dimensional world. In comparison, Jesus sees from a three-dimensional reality. Thus, he responds by contrasting life in this current age with life in the next. Marriage, he says, is necessary for the current age because mortality necessitates the need to perpetuate life. There is another age to come, however, and those who live life from the vision that springs out of that dimension are “children of the resurrection.”
 
What starts out a question about marriage moves to an image of childhood. Children do not see life through a vision constrained by adult concerns such as marriage, preoccupations with legacy, or the violent pursuit of possessing one another as property for selfish ambition. It seems that Jesus is using the simplicity of childhood as a descriptor for what seeing life from the dimension of the resurrection is like.
 
Whatever the nature of the age to come, there is invitation to a different way of relating that sets us free from “owning” or “grasping” one another. It is the gift of relationship without ownership. From two-dimensional reality, the woman in this text is a piece of property to be owned and manipulated for the benefit of the seven men. In the three dimensional reality of life lived in the reality of resurrection, there is liberation from the need to “grasp” or “possess” the other.
 
Seeing the resurrection requires a second look. Jesus says we gain that vision when we look through the eyes of a child and thus become “children of the resurrection.” It takes a while for our eyes to adjust to the light of the resurrection but when they do, all of life looks radically different. In this sense, it is not so much seeing something that did not exist before, but seeing an old thing in a new way through a new lens. Such is the miracle of gospel sight-to see what has always been there in such a radically new way that it becomes a new thing. Easter eyes are young eyes.
 
Robert Barron captures something profoundly important for us at Street Psalms in his book “And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation.” He writes,
“Christianity is, above all, a way of seeing. Everything else in Christian life flows from and circles around the transformation of vision. Christians see differently, and that is why their prayer, their worship, their action, their whole way of being in the world, has a distinctive accent and flavor.”
 
The Gospel not only empowers us to see, but to see from a particular vantage point, through the unconstrained eyes of a child. It is an invitation to see from within the reality of the resurrection. It might be the greatest invitation we ever receive…regardless of our age.
 
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

Zacchaeus: A Wee Little Man Was He (Not)

 
“He was seeking to see Jesus but on account of the crowd he could not….”

Luke 19:1-10

This week’s Gospel text is a narrative some people grew up singing in Sunday School:
 
“Zacchaeus was a wee, little man, and a wee, little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…”
 
The lyrics focus on the smallness of his physical stature, a fact that presumably forced him to climb a tree to fulfill his desire to see Jesus-a desire borrowed from the crowd around him. The problem was, as the boss of the hated tax collectors, he was the disdain of the very crowd whose desire he shared. Thus he “climbs,” a manipulative act that has become his normative pattern of life, in attempt to forcefully get “above” those around him.
 
Zacchaeus, driven by desire, wants to see Jesus, but his line of sight is impaired. From what we know about tax collectors, physical attributes were likely the least of his concerns. While Zacchaeus looks down from his perch above, Jesus looks up from below. He calls Zacchaeus by name and invites himself over for dinner. As often happens in the Gospel narrative (think Emmaus Road), the supposed “guest” becomes, in actuality, the “host.” And this shift in roles is embraced at great cost. Jesus transforms from the celebrity the crowd gathers to “see” into the their scapegoated object of disdain (“And when they saw it, they all grumbled, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.'”)
 
At great personal expense, Jesus publicly expresses an urgent need to dine with the hated tax collector-to enter relationship exactly where the corrupt opportunist is perched. Invitation into home was invitation into life. There is no need for a preliminary action on Zacchaeus’ part. Jesus simply stops, looks up to Zacchaeus, and publicly declares him friend instead of foe; his time of isolation, shame and seeing the other as rival is no more. Jesus “must” stay at his house this day.
 
Salvation comes to Zacchaeus and his response, bathed in unexpected vulnerability, is beautifully captured in verse 8. His actions reveal the tangible effects of Jesus’ transformational declaration and loving presence. He is free from the rivalry of “needing to climb” and is invaded by liberating joy.
 
“Zacchaeus received him joyfully…and stood and said to the Lord, Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
 
The contrast to last week’s lectionary text is striking. Instead of a Pharisee looking down in judgment upon a tax collector, we have Jesus literally looking up in mercy at a tax collector. Instead of a tax collector going to God’s house seeking salvation, we see Jesus going to the home of the tax collector, proclaiming salvation through the sacredness of his presence. Jesus doesn’t point Zacchaeus to a way of salvation, his invitation makes it clear that He himself IS salvation.
 
That same invitation is extended to us all-to climb down from our perches of rivalry and violence seeded by misplaced crowd desire. Those desires indeed make us “wee little men and women.” From that precarious perch, Jesus catches our eye and publicly calls us to “hurry down.” He introduces us to a liberated vision of life untethered to popular crowd desire, manipulative posturing and eventual scapegoating.
 
The “wee little man,” through encounter with Jesus, is transformed and “re-narrated” into a new reality that is anything but “wee” and “little.” Such is the invitation to us all.
 
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

Superhero Spandex

 
11“The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

Luke 18:9-14

 
Superhero movies are all the rage recently. I’m sure there are a variety of reasons why…such as an affinity for spandex.
 
A more likely reason might be the attraction of a clear-cut good guy/bad guy dichotomy. In our world of gray, there’s nothing more satisfying than the clarity of Captain America. When he’s around, we know who to cheer…he is the “good guy.”
 
“Good guys” are righteous…and not just in 80’s California slang. In biblical Hebrew, the word “righteous” (tsaddiq) means “straight”…like a properly shot arrow that doesn’t deviate to the right or the left. Straight shots hit the bullseye.
 
On the surface, this story looks like a classic good guy/bad guy dichotomy. Right off the bat, we’re introduced to a Pharisee. This group of leaders often gets a bad shake in the New Testament. Historians don’t know a lot about them, relatively speaking, but we are aware that in many ways they were role models for a covenant lifestyle. They were committed to God.
 
In our story today, we run across one such Pharisee. He pays his tithes and participates in the important spiritual activities of the community. He’s a “good guy.” And I’m not being sarcastic. It’s easy to dismiss him as prideful, but we miss the point if we do so. In every measurable way, he was the “good guy” in the story…and the people of his day would have recognized it. His activities were righteous and benefited the community.
 
His counterpart on the other hand, the tax collector, was not a “good guy.” In all likelihood he was a hired hand of the empire. He probably bought tax-collecting contracts from the Romans, and charged people extra for his own gain. It’s safe to bet his behavior most adversely affected the vulnerable in his community. He wasn’t a “good guy” by any exterior measure. We do ourselves a disservice if we try to romanticize him.
 
The traditional reading of this text is pretty straightforward. The Pharisee was prideful and didn’t recognize his brokenness; he was blind to the immensity of his need for God. The tax collector, on the contrary, cried out for mercy; his brokenness was painfully evident to himself and all around. His confession of brokenness and need paved the way for God to declare him “justified.” What’s more, this story fits snugly into the theme of chapter eighteen. In almost every story, our concept of good person/bad person is flipped on its head. Somehow, in God’s economy, the openly broken are drawn near to God.
 
But if we stop at this traditional reading, we risk falling into the same trap as the Pharisee. We walk away from the story with an upside-down version of good guy/bad guy. And it’s exactly the act of creating and imposing moral categories-good guy/bad guy-that led to the problem in the first place.
 
Notice the posture of the Pharisee in the story. His failure to openly embrace his brokenness not only leads to a diving distancing, but puts him in rivalry with the tax collector (his neighbor) as well; the bulk of his prayer is spent judging his neighbor on moral grounds. His categories of good guy/bad guy place him in a “holy” competition with everyone around him, and become an obstacle to human and divine relationships.
 
The tax collector’s posture, on the other hand, is open. He never points the finger at his neighbor. The act of owning his brokenness strips rivalry of its power. There is no good guy/bad guy in his scenario; there is just a holy honesty that occurs at the foot of the cross. There is no competition. There is nothing to lose by being openly honest. The result is clear: the door to real relationships, both vertical and horizontal, opens wide. He is free to love and be loved. He is liberated from the slavery of good guy/bad guy categories.
 
“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified…” N.T. Wright calls these the most “comforting words in the Gospel.” May God grant all of us the mercy to lay bare our brokenness, to find comfort in a creator who can deal with it, and enjoy the liberation of the real relationships that follow.
 
 
Justin Mootz
Interim Director of Communications
Street Psalms

Faith from Below

 
15” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?

Luke 18:1-8

 
This is a familiar parable Jesus uses to teach us about the nature of prayer. The widow shows us what it looks like to persist in prayer: to keep praying, believing and acting like God will answer our prayers because God is just and merciful.
 
Even though it is familiar, this parable has always left me a little frustrated. Not so fast Jesus. I struggle with the fact that the picture of prayer is one that pits extreme power (the judge) against extreme powerlessness (the widow).
 
If we slow this story down a bit, we see a woman who is at the end of her own resources. Widows were the symbol of extreme vulnerability-without means to support themselves.
 
Her struggle and her need are very public. We get the picture that she comes before this judge repeatedly, asking for his help. She acts on what she needs. She has nowhere left to turn. She comes before the judge and her request is this: “Grant me justice.”
 
Can you feel her desperation? She has nothing and he, the judge, has everything. He holds power over her.
 
This is a horrible scenario if you ask me. It feels like a lost cause for her. I can’t get past the idea that she kept coming back to ask for help-even though he’s told her “no” many times. What kind of inner-strength and resolve must it have taken to do this? His indifference toward her is unbearable. This judge didn’t respect God-or respect people for that matter. Don’t expect this guy to do anything good or just on behalf of this widow.
 
And yet she is persistent with her plea. “Grant me justice.”
 
It’s almost too hard to watch.
 
I have a friend who is a single immigrant mother. She moved to this country and into our community a year ago.
 
She navigates complex systems, every day, that are set up to assist, but ironically, actually make it extremely difficult to access resources she needs for herself and her child. I’ve witnessed her go to “the judge,” the systems that hold power over her life-immigration, justice, public transportation, housing, healthcare, education, insurance, employment-and plea her case. “Grant me justice.” “Grant me what I need, please, in order to live with dignity.”
 
She persists in the face of systems that can say “no” one day and “yes” the next.
 
I’ve asked her how she keeps doing it. What keeps her from throwing in the towel?
 
That’s the obvious question I have for the widow, too. What keeps them both from saying, “forget it!”? What is behind this persistence?
 
Her answer? “God is good. God is faithful.”
 
It is a difficult thing to watch. It is a beautiful thing to behold.
 
She, like the widow from the parable knows, and even more importantly, believes and acts on something that we often forget: God is on the side of the vulnerable and has a special affection for widows, orphans and aliens.
 
And so, they pray and persist. They pray and believe. They pray and they act.
 
They know God is not like the unjust judge. They believe God hears and answers the prayers of those who cry out, “Grant us justice.” They know and believe, like their life depended on it, that God is with them and is on their side.
 
Some of us may never know what this kind of utter dependence on God feels like. The point of this parable is to get us to move toward that kind of dependence. Those who are vulnerable and powerless can be our teachers. Their lives invite and challenge us to a relationship with God that is predicated on God’s goodness and faithfulness-especially in the face of adversity.
 
Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalm

The Salute of Grace

 
15“One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him -and he was a Samaritan.”

Luke 17:11-19 

 

Our text this week is a common narrative engaged by preachers at Thanksgiving time in North America pleading for “attitudes of gratitude.” A narrative whose essence can be seen in the triviality of the closing scene of this children’s version of the story where the last frame exclaims, “Don’t Forget to Thank Jesus.”
 
In such simplified, moralistic versions of the story the other 9 lepers who don’t return to Jesus are vilified as ungrateful. However, we shouldn’t rush to cast judgment on them. Were not all ten collectively calling out to Jesus for mercy, keeping their appropriate distance while doing so? Did not all ten immediately set out in obedience after receiving the exhortation to go show themselves to the priests…even before they saw evidence of healing? Moreover, Jesus never creates an expectation that they return to him with thank-you notes. One assumes they were ecstatic to return to their families, friends, and jobs, to which the healing restored them. Wouldn’t you do the same?

Jesus had encountered all ten marginalized lepers in a marginalized place-the border between Samaria and Galilee. This is a no man’s land-a liminal space. Importantly, it is here where the long-distance relationship begins and ends with 9 out of the 10 who call out for mercy. Jesus tells them all to go and show themselves to the priests. All ten go. Only one returns. Luke makes sure to mention that one is a Samaritan.
 
The despised Samaritan was “unclean” from both sickness and ethnicity. When he is made whole, lying prostrate in gratitude before Jesus, it is not just leprosy alone from which he is healed. The business about “going and showing oneself to the priests” was an act of conformity to a system that had ostracized and declared all ten unclean in the first place. The Samaritan is healed from conformity to such a religious system of violence that divides and separates between clean and unclean, Gentile and Jew. The Samaritan, unshackled from such allegiance, freely comes to Jesus, understanding him as both a source of physical healing and a giver of social restoration.
 
The verbs Jesus uses in this story reveal the progression. The ten were all initially “cleansed” (tharizo- “to be made clean or healed of a disease”). But the Samaritan, upon returning to Jesus, was “made well,” (sozo- “to be healed of spiritual disease and death”).

The other nine return to have their physical healing certified by a priest. They return to participate in the same system that had excluded them-it was the source of their religious identity prior to being cast out, and now they returned to its exclusive boundaries. It was the Samaritan (previously excluded from that system to begin with) who sees that Jesus, by healing him at the same time as the other nine, also offered liberation from the oppressive order that created the marginalization in the first case.

In pondering the intimate moment of the story when Jesus and the healed Samaritan are together, I am reminded of poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s description of “the love that consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” Their encounter becomes recognition of two outcasts hungry for authentic community that is scapegoat free.
 
It is not just a distant plea for mercy from the group, the dutiful obedience to go show oneself to the priests, or even an expression of heartfelt gratitude that captures the heart at the salute of God’s scandalous grace. The salute happens in the intimacy of two outcasts seeking and longing for a new kind of community-a place where foreigner becomes friend. The appropriate response to such a salute, displayed by the foreigner, is the complete vulnerability illustrated by throwing oneself at the feet of Jesus. The salute of grace is given and love heals all wounds.
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

It’s Not Pornography, It’s Just Love

Pornography? No! This is, after all, a God honoring blog that just might use the occasional shocking image to get a message across. While it may at first appear that the joyous woman in the center of the photo has forsaken her wardrobe, a closer examination reveals that she is only guilty of being very close to a friend with a generously sized arm. A refreshed view allows us work past the pornographic illusion and witness the love expressed here.

Is this the only illusion where love has been mistaken for pornography? Think of how people, including Jesus’ disciples, viewed the Savior as he shared the good news of living waters with the scandalized Samaritan woman at the well. (John 4:1-42)

Millennial Practice may require us to look a bit more deeply before arriving at judgment. This could develop a skill in us, allowing for the discovery of God’s love in the midst of living portraits of apparent disgust. Are we willing then to despise shame and reach into the muck and smut of this world and extract precious gems of grace? Can we afford not to?

Admission—I’ve been seen paying a prostitute. As is the practice of many otherwise respectable middle age church attending married men, I have on several occasions reached into my pocket and handed a prostitute a ten or a twenty in exchange for a favor. Although I have felt ill-at-ease when doing this publicly, I have never felt a sense of shame about it; I actually wish Christians did more of this type of thing. My wife knows about these activities and, as you can imagine, she is not comfortable with this sort of thing but she is very understanding and ultimately affirms my actions. And some of you thought you knew me.

OK, before you start calling down heavenly fire down on me, let me explain. The woman in question, who we will call Daphne, has become a very important friend to me. I first met her at the church. I remember the disgust on the older folks’ faces and the frenzy of the children as we made our first encounter. Daphne and her husband/pimp had sought refuge in a covered stairwell which led to the lower level of our church. There they pulled out their kits and started injecting themselves with the liquid cocaine they had stolen from some local medical facility. Their choice of locations may have been wise but their timing was awful. Little did they know that this church used the back door to enter and exit Sunday Worship Service. Little did they know that they had made themselves comfortable right as the benediction was being passionately voiced? Little did they know benedictions, prayers, affirmations and other parts of the sacred liturgy usually wore off by the time most members of this church hit the door. On this Sunday, when the members hit the door and saw the couple, there went the “make you perfect in every good work” part of the benedictory blessing

After comforting the grossed out kids and the angry saints, I made my way to the stairwell. Daphne and her hubby seemed a bit oblivious to the tempest they had stirred; after all, they had one purpose in mind, to escape the pain of being the kind people who would shoot up on church property. Reaching the two, I had little idea of what to say or do. Ministry in Camden prepares you for some of everything but some situations overwhelm strategy, experience and creativity. All I could do was ask permission to pray with the couple. Hubby quickly pushed back against the impending kairos moment by diverting to religion and responding, “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness. I believe that…”  I calmly interrupted, “Brother, you’re shooting up on the church stairwell. Does your religion really matter right now?” Hubby bowed his head in defeat as Daphne lifted her head in desperation and immediately launched into grotesque candor. She poured out, in tears and sweat, a hideous biography: birth at her mother’s rehab center, abused again and again, teen mom, daughter taken by child welfare, streets, drugs, beatings, more drugs, hubby, prostitution and more drugs. Having become accustomed to the unparalleled lying expertise among addicts, I was neither prepared for Daphne’s shameless honesty nor her humble benedictory cry, “Please pray for us.” Undeterred by the noontime heat or the whispers of outraged church members wafting in the warm breezes behind us, we sat in the shade of the filthy little stairwell and invited God into this mess.

imag0001We prayed in the most appropriate of settings. While the stairwell seems to lead away from where the true action of the church takes place, it actually serves as the entrance to an unofficial neighborhood sanctuary. This is a church situated on a major thoroughfare near the dividing line between the city and its nearest suburb. An odd feature of the church is that its entrance offers an inviting, lushly appointed, tree laden path for anyone arriving from the suburban direction, yet its ample doors are offset and thus its entrance is obscured from the view of anyone approaching from the city side of the divide. Much to its designers’ delight, city dwellers are continually confused about how to enter the church. Believing that a church’s architecture is a reflection of its congregation’s spirituality, I’ve often commented that the people who had this church built in 1957 desired to have their faces toward the suburbs and their posteriors toward the city. Is there any wonder that so much of the community’s mess happens in this little stairwell on the business end of the church?

Not only does the little stairwell occasionally serve as a public toilet, it is also a clandestine location from which drug addicts break in and steal quick sale items. I have witnessed the stairwell provide asylum for suburban addicts who hide there after encounters with drug dealers that have taken violent twists. The homeless sometimes find the stairwell to be a great place for a nap or a good night’s rest and others see it as a comfortable spot to simply drink a beer or smoke a Black and Mild in peace. I’ve never been able to put the stairwell’s most haunting application into perspective. There is a tall skinny wide-eyed young redhead who descends into its depths, finding there a safe place to scream. I can only imagine what horrors drive her to the stairwell. She won’t discuss the details; she simply thanks me for allowing her the space to let loose. Strangely, I somehow find more abundance of the scared, the holy, the divine, and the anointing amongst the echoes of her agonizing wails than I have ever experienced in official sanctuary sitting one level above this grimy little sanctuary of the wounded. As far as I’m concerned, this anally situated haven on the city side of the church is where the real preaching takes place – only there, instead of us preaching to them, our community preaches to us.

5e839c780a5ef5f8bba31ff98fe0_grandeDaphne seemed changed after her time with God in the stairwell. In accord with the typical irony of the Kingdom and of Camden, it took the dirtiest place in the neighborhood to facilitate a cleansing experience for Daphne – and for me. Daphne’s repentance was precious and rare. Her confession was instant and unfettered. She and hubby had almost exhausted $36,000 in law suit money, spending it on Oxycontin in the Philadelphia suburbs. They knew of Camden’s reputation for having cheap, plenteous and potent heroin and decided crossing the Delaware River was a sensible option for users on such a reduced budget. Daphne was ashamed of this history and was ready to change. Hubby was cooperative and willing to accept the temporal assistance of a few days’ stay at a nearby motel and some food offered him, but he was not interested in revising his future history. In fact, after the prayer Daphne and Hubby fiercely argued over this issue. It seems that as we bowed our heads and closed our eyes to pray, hubby seized an opportunity to lift the couple’s last twenty from Daphne’s bag. She begged and pleaded with hubby to come clean about his theft and his desire to use the money to score some more dope. Resolute in his denials, hubby first threatened violence then, seeing that I was twice his size and ready to intervene, he resorted to professing his great love for her in an appeal for her to trust him. The trust was not forthcoming that afternoon, the violence would come later but Daphne seems to have held on to the ray of hope that slivered through on that shady little stairwell.

In the years since that warm spring Sunday afternoon, Daphne and I have enjoyed a relationship of pure honesty. She tells me when she is using and when she is attempting to quit. She lets me know when she is getting beat-up by hubby and when she has beaten him up. She cries when discussing the negligible prospects of getting custody of her daughter. I once asked Daphne, after getting totally sick from taking Oxycodone for a knee injury, “How can you take this stuff?” Daphne matter-of-factly replied, “Yeah, you feel that way the first couple of times you use them but then you get into it.” I limped back into the house and flushed the pills down the toilet. Daphne and I enjoy the evolutionary fruits of symbiosis. Our relationship offers Daphne, through her tears, the healing waters of release and cleansing. These same waters fulfill my yearnings for belonging, authenticity and honest encounters with the Divine – so precious, uncommon and humbling amidst our mediated and hyper-controlled Christian bio-ecology.

When I ask, Daphne tells me the truth. Like most working girls in Camden, Daphne lacks the luxuries of glitzy clothes, garish makeup and stiletto heels for her trade. She just hikes up her skirt or lifts the waistline of her pants to accentuate the curves of her silhouette. On seeing her in this state, already knowing the situation, I ask where she’s going. “Oh, you know, I gotta do like four” is her typical reply. At five dollars apiece, I know she has to bring home $20 for hubby to score some heroin and keep his fist away from her eyes.

I’ve never possessed the evangelistic muscle that I have seen in friends, colleagues and family members. You know, the kind that in moments like these cripples the wayward with conviction and sends them running to the nearest alter of repentance. I don’t think this my gift or calling. I suspect I’ve been modestly equipped to just hang around with people who are doing or about to do dangerous, self-destructive things. Maybe my presence serves as a reminder that God neither blushes, nor does he turn his head in disgust. I’ve learned that such reminders are important for those trying to heal after dehumanizing bouts of self-demolition that seem to breach the farthest parameters of forgiveness. Thus, the only sermon, the only appeal, the only gospel I can offer Daphne on such chilly evenings is to reach into my pocket and proffer a crisp twenty. This sacred offering may not seem a fitting substitute for Daphne’s running to the altar, falling on her knees and confessing her every sin, but at least, for this night, she is spared the inhumanity of what usually occurs while on her knees.

Most of my Christian sisters and brothers seem to describe the anointing as some spirit/emotion/charisma amalgam. They usually connect this to a moment of prayer, song or preaching. While I love spirit, emotion, charisms, prayers, songs and good preaching, the anointing hits me during discomforting episodes. Believe me, when I talk with Daphne and reach into my pocket for a bill or two, I look both ways to see who may be scrutinizing my activities. Forsaking evangelical zeal and bravado, I approach such encounters with hesitation and reservation; I do worry about my reputation and $20 represents nearly 5% of my weekly income. Yet, awkwardly swimming among the testy waters of my aversions and apprehensions eventually transforms me and then thrusts me into vigorous waves of grace, leaving me embarrassingly drenched within floods of humble blessing. Yeah $20 spares Daphne a bruising at the hands of her husband but it goes so much further in healing my festering wounds.

Bebop Lesson: Triune Faith – Tritone Intervals

street-sax-henry-j-yassesThough it is the safer of my two relationships with women who have worked the streets, my relationship with Daphne is enough to make one squirm. Squirming seems to be a standard feature of any theology lived among the distorted stanzas of the human song. My friends within the Street Psalms Community have identified such an approach to reflecting on our faith as the practice of Jazz Theology. As a true bebopper would do, I’ve taken the notion a step further and have called it Bebop Theology. I do so because Bebop’s name is derived from chords of pain, specifically the flatted or diminished fifth, which became the core tone of this Jazz genre. Like my relationship with Daphne, the flatted fifth is an awkward offering when served up as a Christian metaphor. The flatted fifth is a triton interval or what the church had designated asdiabolus in musica (the devil in music). Not only was its use forbidden in the medieval church, it was also unheard of in popular American musical forms such as swing and the blues. It took the working stiffs, the band members of jazz legends such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong to rebel against their masters and form a new expression of the music which would include both its joys and its pains. As jazz historian Piero Scaruffi suggests, innovators such as Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Charlie “Bird” Parker, and Dexter Gordon became musical poets and philosophers instead of mere entertainers. He goes on to say these Bebop titans “were former slaves who, once liberated, turned their back to their masters and migrated to distant virgin lands.”

The Tritone: Listen to the Flatted Fifth

The Tritone: Listen to the Flatted Fifth

Be it in music, art or human relations, liberation sounds good to me. Our times call for liberating adventures that free us to migrate to distant islands of grace. I wish this world’s Daphnes could find such measures of grace right at the doorsteps of the local churches and ministries that flood our avenues. Instead, overly scripted traditions, attitudes, practices and standards seem to clog supply lines of peace and block the merciful flow God has ordained for our streets and dwellings.

Amadi (pictured here at age 7) loves music but isn't feeling the flatted fifth.

Amadi (pictured here at age 7) loves music but isn’t feeling the flatted fifth.

As refreshing as the liberating qualities of Bebop Theology may feel and sound within the relative safety of the blogosphere, the practice of living among its polytonal dissonance will by no means enhance ones chances of becoming the next American Idol. Bebop often has an initial off-putting effect. I recently sat with my 13 year old daughter Amadi and listened to Thelonious Monk’s Crepuscule with Nellie. Amadi is a trained violinist who hates the tritone. “It just sounds so wrong,” Amadi says. Monk’s Bebop masterpiece is heavy on flatted fifths and features them quite early in the piece. It takes the average Bebop initiate several listening session before resonating with the distorted tones and blending them with the bounty of melodic ones. Once initiated, one is equipped to enter into the tensions of eternal love and ephemeral emotion, abiding companionship and fear of abandonment, fidelity and insecurity, all resident in Monk’s ode to enjoying the twilight with his soul mate. I trust that, as the years pass and her allegiance to Justin Bieber wanes, Amadi will give Monk a chance.

As with Bebop, gospel notes belted out from the context of street-born urban pain often require good measures of abiding patience before listeners may enjoy the resident beauty lodged between dissonant theological intervals. Those deeply ensconced in the cult of tradition, restriction and the insider language of christianese will generally miss or misinterpret such sacred chords and regard such notes as scandalous or even pornographic. Such was the experience of Jesus – scandalized, rebuked and rejected as he liberated disreputable women (John 4, John 8:1-11), a social pariah (Luke 19:1-10) and countless victims of blindness and disease (John 9). Like Bebop, Jesus confronts humanity’s painful notes and weaves them into redemption’s lyric. His lived theology, complete with love of enemies and suffering for and with sinners, is a total rejection of the notion of diabolus in musica. If we assign the notes of pain and discomfort to Satan, then what do we do with the cross – the ultimate symbol of agony and distress. What do we do with the one who suffered there – living, loving and dying with scandalous women, corrupt tax collectors and five dollar prostitutes working Camden’s streets? How do we put his agonizing wails from the cross, the ultimate tritone, into perspective? In the once dead and now living Christ, dwells the affirmation that Daphne’s song, as scary sounding and dis-harmonic as it may initially sound, is nonetheless an essential Kingdom song. It is a tune that must gain resonance within our ears if we are to truly enjoy the transforming melodies of the Divine.

Personally, I feel that the tritone, when sung at length as harmony by a group of meditators, will take singers and listeners to a place where they will be in touch with Divinity. Perhaps this is a reason why it was so threatening in ages past.
Kay Gardner, Sounding the Inner Landscape