Four for Forty – January 2018

It is the second day of February and I am now into the second full month of the #FourForForty challenges I set myself at the start of the year. I guess i am at the very least a little proud in that i have NEVER taken a New Year Challenge or resolution more than a couple of weeks into the year…

One month in, I am still full of enthusiasm and drive to achieve the goals I have set myself.

So how are they going?

1 Memorizing Mark’s Gospel

This aspect of the challenges is, I have very quickly recognized, going to be the toughest of them all over the long haul. I am very much on schedule as I write this having committed to memory 2 verses a day for the last month. Chapter one is very well memorized and I am now in the middle of chapter two (at the point where Jesus gives his wine/wineskins teaching).

I have to confess that i did not consider the devotional impact that this challenge would have on me. As one friend commented on a previous post, in doing this I am taking Mark’s gospel into my heart. So far, that has very much been my experience. As I repeat those verses again and again I find myself sometimes being stopped and moved by a single word or phrase or action in the story. I am enjoying this challenge a great deal, but it is still early days, and in the great scheme of it all, I have hardly scratched the surface of what I have to commit to memory over the coming year…but so far so good!

2. The Tonne Run/Walk

This challenge started out well in early January. I was in Washington D.C. for classes and living the student life, i.e. I had no car and was going everywhere on foot or on metro. I got to bank a lot of extra miles in the time I was up there.

If I am honest, I wondered if this would be the one that I would try to back out of in the first month. I am not a natural mover or lover of exercise by any stretch of the imagination (unless it involves team sport). Also, as one friend reminded me, there are days when life just takes over and it is hard to find time to get the three miles I’ve targeted each day done. Life has certainly tried to take over in that January has been a very busy month in church and family life, but I have made it and remain on target with this challenge. When I first returned from D.C. my natural laziness and laid back style kicked in for a couple of days as I took some of those banked D.C. miles and enjoyed the luxury of not moving. Soon I realized that this is no way to move forward and that it’s important that i knuckle down and get the exercise done each day. I have to MAKE the time for this one and that is what I have done.

I am very thankful for the presence of my friend, JW who accompanies me on this journey as much as he can. The friendship, conversation, and general witty banter between us is motivating.

In January, I walked or ran 102.35 miles. These are all miles that are over and above the normal miles that might be accrued in the working day. They represent extra, intentional movement, which is the idea of this challenge for me. Those 102.35 miles represent an average of 3.3 miles per day. My target for a 31 day month is 93 miles or intentional running/walking, and so, January’s efforts have left me with 9.65 spare miles banked for those days when life takes over.

3. 40lbs for 40

The weight loss challenge.

As expected, after the Christmas holiday, and with all the extra movement I have managed to shift a good amount of weight in the first month. Currently I am 10lbs lighter than I was on January 1st. This is a good achievement for me, for sure. However, if i am to lose a total of 40lbs this year it will involve me focussing in a lot more on this aspect of the challenges. The extra movement alone is not enough. My diet is still erratic. Some days it is very good and other days it stinks. If the 40lbs are to be lost this year then my focus on what I am eating will have to improve. No question about it. But I know I can do it. I am confident of it. Watch this space.

4. The Savings Challenge.

This particular challenge involves me putting away the dollar value of the corresponding week of the year we are in. Of course, as the weeks go on, this will be come harder and harder, but there is another reason this challenge is a difficult one: I simply don’t carry much cash around with me. Therefore, the trick to following through on this challenge will be my intentionally visiting the bank and withdrawing the cash to save.

So…confession time. I did not save any actual cash for the first three weeks of the year because I did not have any on my person. So in week four of January, i visited the bank and withdrew the needed cash and some extra too. I don’t know if it is cheating, but I have put away enough cash to carry my savings challenge through to the second week of March. I don’t think it is cheating. By doing it this way, I am getting myself ahead a little bit, and using my time as wisely as possible. I don’t get to the bank each week (my nearest branch is a 30 minute drive away), so it is wise to “stock up” for this challenge when I do go there. Simple!

So there we go. I am on target after one month. I am pumped that I’ve lasted a month and I am pumped to continue moving forward in each of the four for forty!

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New Year 2018 – Four for Forty

As I begin to type this, it is Saturday night, 30th December 2017. In just a couple of hours, in my timezone, we will be well and truly into the last day of the year – New Years Eve. Traditionally, this is a time of revelry and praying as we let go of the year gone by and embrace the year ahead. Looking into a new year is always a time of hope for changes and new things in our lives: “Maybe this year will be my/our year…”

This new year is a particularly significant one for me because I was born in 1978. Yep. as we enter 2018, I am on the extremely fast slide to my 40th birthday (July). To be honest, I am not really that bothered about turning 40 – it is not worrying me in any way, and neither is it exciting me in any way that much either. but i do feel a sense of occasion about it as I look a few months ahead to the actual birthday. Last year, my very best friend took the calendar year of his 40th birthday to enter a year of celebrations and challenges. Inspired by him (as I frequently am) I have come up with my own challenges for the year – “Four Challenges for the Year I Turn Forty,” if you will. The challenges are by no means small. They will stretch me to my very limits if I am to complete them. I have never been the most disciplined person at all, but I feel a sense of wanting to achieve all of the following. Here they are:

1. Memorize the Gospel of Mark.

Mark has 16 chapters containing 661 verses in the New International Version of the Bible. I was introduced to the idea of memorizing the entire Gospel of Mark in 2014 when I attended the Marcy Preaching Fellowship at Candler School of Theology. That little preaching course gave me a brand new love for the shortest of the gospels. I reckon if I take 2 verses a day, I can fir it in to the year. I am also very, very aware that this one will become particularly time consuming as the year goes on and rounds to an end. Nevertheless, the older I get the harder it will be to memorize things, so this is the time to give it a go.

2. The Tonne Run/Walk

Again, inspired by my best mate, who did this a few years ago, I want to achieve this one and believe it to be possible. Three miles a day will cover the 1000 miles in 334 days, leaving me roughly a months worth of days to rest somewhere in it all. It is achievable. It will not be enjoyable. Exercise that doesn’t come in the form of team sport is not my first love at all. This challenged will also push me to my limits, and likely well beyond them too, but that is no bad thing. Again, the older I get, the harder it will become to do this type of thing, so now is the time. I will be running and walking because I do not believe I would have what it takes to run 3 miles every day, but you never know. I might surprise myself…

3. 40lbs off to mark 40 years of life.

I have always been a large fellow, and have always carried extra weight. When in college/seminary I managed to shift a large amount of weight, some of which I have put back on. It’s time to put the effort in and lose it again (and some more). I can do this one. If I am exercising daily, I know I will shift pounds quickly in the first couple of months of the year, and I know that if I keep it going, the rest can follow. As always, my eating will be the enemy of this challenge, as will my enjoyment of wine, but with a little discipline and devotion to this challenge, I think I can do it. We’ll see.

4. A Saving Challenge

This one has done the rounds on social media in the last couple of days. I saw it and thought it would work for me. The idea is simple: each week I save the dollar amount for the week of the year I am in ($1 in week one of 2018, $2 in week two of 2018, and so on) Over the year, this will represent savings of just under $1380 over the year. Again, this will put some pressure on as the year goes on, but I know it can be done – and it will definitely make Christmas 2018 a little easier for sure!!

So there we have it – Four Challenges for the Year I Turn Forty. Who knows if I’ll make it…

But I’ll be trying for sure.

Thanks for reading.

Finding Light in the Daylight

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent. I preached a sermon based on the Old Testament text for the day – Isaiah 64:1-9. The main thrust of the sermon was to introduce this season as a season of waiting for the promised savior, and to remember that as we wait we already know the end of the story. The Savior has come and therefore our job is not only to wait in this season, but also to look around and notice the signs that remind us he has come. As I drew the sermon to a close, I invited our church family to keep their eyes open for signs of the Savior all around, and then to tell the stories of what they see and hear.

They say that a leader can’t lead what he or she is not prepared to live. Therefore, I too am keeping my eyes and ears open for those signs of Christ around me, and I too am committed to telling the stories as I experience them.

This morning, I got up and decided to take a walk. It was around 7:15am. The darkness of night time had disappeared and the hope-filled light of a new day was already all around. This time of year is a magnificent time of year to have the privilege of living in America. Regardless of the meta-narrative of political turmoil in the United States, my experience of most ordinary people is that they are simply getting on with life each day while circus of all the other stuff goes on around them. That means that most people in my neighborhood, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, enter into the spirit of the season and put Christmas lights on their houses. That’s why it is so magnificent to live here at this time of the year. There is something amazing about seeing light shine in the darkness of night, right?

We too have put lights up on the outside of our home. Each evening at around 5:30pm we switch the lights on in time for the disappearance of the sun, and then we turn them off as we go to bed (less risk of a fire in the night AND less money to Florida Power & Light!!). Not everyone is as frugal though. Some people leave their lights on through the night and into the light of morning. Thanks to these people, I met with God this morning.

As I walked along one road, I noticed that a person had not switched off their lights for the day. The person’s lights were shining away, right there in the daylight. At first I didn’t notice them, but then, when I focussed a little harder I realized that there they were burning away for all to see.

It made me think that light can be hard to see in the daylight.

Stay with me.

During Advent and around Christmas time, we (in the church) make a big deal of reciting the opening words of John’s Gospel as a means of recognizing and celebrating the Incarnation:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5 NRSV)

The closing words of the above passage are some of my favorite words in all of Scripture – they are a persistent reminder that light always breaks darkness. I have used these words again and again in prayers and sermons and conversations to remind folks that even though the world can seem dark and over bearing, no darkness can ever overcome the Light of the world found in Christ. Those words are so very true. However, as I reflected on the Christmas lights shining in the daylight, I could not help but be reminded that I do not live a life that is persistently in the dark. Sure, I have known times of difficulty in life, and I have even known times of unexplained sadness and depression. I also am deeply aware of the difficulties we face in the world in general – crippling poverty, mindless violence, an obsession with power and control…the list could go on. But if I am very honest with myself, the truth is this: I do not exist in a life clouded with perpetual darkness all around me. I am happily married and have two fantastic children. I have food on the table when I want it. I am employed and have a roof over my head. I have good and reliable friends and have had access to a good education.

Although life can certainly be difficult to experience at times, I would not describe my life as one which is lived in darkness. To the contrary, by and large my life is lived in rich and colorful light. I know that this is privilege. I know this is not everyone’s experience in the world, and I would never presume to say it is. However, I do know that there are many others in the world who also experience life in this way; that there are many others who live in a privileged world of rich and colorful light.

Here’s the thing though – in the same way I almost missed those Christmas lights shining in the daylight this morning, when we live in a privileged and light filled world, it can be difficult to see the “Light of the world”. When we live in such abundance, which many of us do, it can be a real challenge to recognize the Savior. It’s hard to see light shining in the day light unless we are intentionally looking for it.

Today I was reminded by God, in a very simple way, that he is not just a 911 emergency God, who is present and shines in the dark moments. Today, God reminded me that God is ALWAYS present – in the best of times and the worst of times. God is always present and always bringing more light into the world. I was challenged this morning; this first ADVENT morning to watch even more closely for God in this world, and to be amazed at God’s goodness and God’s ability to shine in all places.

All Saints Day 2017

All Saints

I am a Christian because someone lived as a Christian before my eyes and showed me the story of God’s great love.

I am a Christian because someone told me the story of God’s great love. That person had been told the story by another someone, who had been told the story by another someone, and so on…

I am a Christian because of all the saints who have gone before me.

I am a Christian because Christ called those saints, and shaped their lives.

I am a Christian because those saints chose to follow Christ.

I am a Christian who is surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

I am a Christian who stands on the shoulders of other the Christians before me.

Today I am thankful for all the saints…

How Long, O Lord?

Today our community has been rocked by yet another teenage suicide. I find myself utterly heart broken for this little boy and for his family.

I find myself wondering where God is when a little boy is crying out, and becomes desperate enough to end his own life.

And so, I write this lament as a means of expressing my own grief and despair (even though the youngster is not known to me personally):

How Long, O Lord?

How long, O Lord?

How long?

How long until we stop hearing about young lives lost to hopelessness?
How long until despair and disappointment is a thing reserved until much later in life, when we can perhaps deal with it a little better?
These kids are too young, too energetic, too talented, and too brilliant for us to lose.

How long?

How long will loved ones continue to walk into a room and find their little ones dead?
How long will the hearts of whole communities be ripped apart by tragic premature death?

How long?

You promise to be with us.
You promise to never leave us, nor forsake us.

You assure us that your “yolk is easy and your burden is light”
We are told to cast our burdens upon you because you care for us.

Since the beginning, you have made yourself known to mankind,
So why are you hiding yourself from these young people?
Why do you hide yourself from their understanding; from their experience of life;
Why do you hold back your hope?

I have experienced that hope.

I know your “Good News!”
I know that hope always pervades and cannot be diminished.

I know that light always shines in the darkness, and that darkness cannot ever overcome it.
I know that you are good all the time, and that all the time you are good.

I know this.

But I am nearly 40 years old.

So tell me…
How can you reveal yourself to me, but you do not seem to be able to reveal yourself to the young one getting ready to end his or her life?

I know you are love.
I know you are love and that your love will continue with the grief stricken, broken family of that little boy.

But why was your love not made real for him before he ended his own life?
Why was his wee heart not healed and transformed?
Why was your hope hidden?

You loved that boy enough to die for him,

But you could not show yourself to him in the most desperate of moments, when he needed hope most.
I’m astounded by that.
Your apparent absence is staggering.

How long, O Lord!

How long will we wait for you to revive us?
How long will we have to wait for hope?
How long will the young continue to despair?

I’m hurt as I write this.
I’m angry at you, God.
I’m angry and disappointed.

And yet…

…there is nowhere else to turn.
There is no other place to find hope and healing.
There is no other place to find unconditional, life transforming acceptance and love.

My faith hangs on by a thread right now, God.

Show yourself.
Show yourself.
Keep your promise and show yourself!

We need you to show yourself.

How long, O Lord, until you do?

An Essay on the Role of Biblical Lament in the Alabama Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Introduction

The U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s is, without a doubt, one of the finest examples of leadership, community organization, and successful activism that the modern world has been witness to.  Under the direction of exemplary leaders such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Mrs. Jo Ann Robinson, and Mrs. Rosa Parks, significant advancements were made by the Civil Rights Movement, particularly in the state of Alabama.

During this era, the church was the epicenter of the African American community.  As F. Douglas Powe states:

…the church was the most important institution within the community.  The church was a space where African Americans were in control of their own reality.  The church was a sanctuary in the truest sense of the word from the grind of life that many African Americans dealt with daily.  It was the church which created an alternative reality to the harsh world on the other side of the doors, enabling many African Americans to have one space where they felt whole.[1]

There can be no debating the fact that during this time the church played a central leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement, and a significant practical role too, through the hosting of mass meetings, providing space for training in non-violent protest to take place, and by using its resources to communicate necessary information as widely as possible in local communities.  But can it be argued that the church, with its ancient Christian practice and tradition of biblical lament made an unrecognized, uniquely significant offering to the Civil Rights Movement?  I believe so.

In this essay, I will argue that the ancient Christian practice of biblical lament played a uniquely important role in the life and success of the Civil Rights Movement. I will illustrate this significance by showing that it was lament which brought the community together; that it was lament which gave collective voice to the valid complaints of the individual within the gathered community; that it was lament which moved these people from complaint to action; and that it was lament which inspired a hope-filled vision of a different future for African American people in the United States.
To build this argument, it will be important to identify what biblical lament is.  I will draw on several resources which will help define biblical lament and also help to find lament within the context of the Civil Rights movement.  I will also highlight the differences between personal biblical lament and communal biblical lament, both of which will be illustrated with biblical examples as well as examples from within the history of the Civil Rights Movement.  Finally, I will show that one of Dr. King’s most famous speeches, “Our God is Marching On!” can be interpreted as having incorporated the elements that make up the recognized structure of a biblical lament.
I will conclude that the church’s ancient tradition and practice of biblical lament played a centrally crucial role in giving voice to the complaints of the African American community in mid 20th century America; that it moved people from complaint to non-violent action; and that it inspired, all along the way, a hope-filled vision of a better future for their community.  I will also conclude that the ancient Christian practice of lament, which is so evident in the story and central to the success of the Civil Rights Movement, needs to be recovered again in the life of the church today if the church is to once again be a gathering place which gives voice to the complaints of communities, moves people to actions, and inspires a hope filled vision of a different future.

What is Biblical Lament?

In my experience, when the word ‘lament’ is brought up in general conversation, it is usually referring to a complaint that is being made, out of a sense of loss or grief – regardless of whether the loss/grief is significant or not.  For example, one might say that Mrs. Smith lamented the loss of her time when her doctor’s office was running behind schedule resulting in a delayed appointment. The loss of time may or may not be significant for Mrs Smith, but the inconvenience has brought about a complaint; a lament.  Dictionary definitions of the word lament confirm this understanding.  Dictionary.com defines lament as feeling or expressing sorrow or regret for; mourning for or over; mourning deeply.[2]  When lament is only understood in this way, it becomes something that simply stops at the point of complaint and grief. There is no progression or end in sight for the complaint or grief.  The ancient Christian practice of biblical lament is quite different from this.

Although biblical lament can be found in various places throughout Scripture, it is most commonly found in the book of Psalms.  A full third of the 150 Psalms are recognized as laments.  Structurally, these lament Psalms each move through a similar structure and have similar elements, which can be identified as: Address, Complaint, Request, and Expression of Trust in God.[3]  As can be seen from these elements, the movement of a lament Psalm is a movement from complaint to trust, or, as Logan C. Jones puts it, there is a “distinctive movement from plea to praise…”[4]

Whereas, the dictionary definition and general conversational understanding of lament suggests that it is a complaint or expression of grief that has no progression or end in sight, the structure of a biblical lament shows movement and a desire for change.  Denise Dombkowski-Hopkins highlights this well when she states: “A lament does not merely bemoan hardship, but rather, seeks change.”[5] 

In my research, I have discovered two helpful definitions of biblical lament.  Andrew Williams broadly defines it as a “grieving for the present situation yet acting in the hopeful assurance that God will deliver and redeem.”[6]  In the same article, Williams cites Rebekah Eklund, who defines biblical lament by stating:

Lament is a persistent cry for salvation to the God who promises to save, in a situation of suffering or sin, in the confident hope that this God hears and responds to cries, and acts now and in the future to make whole. Lament calls upon God to be true to God’s own character and to keep God’s own promises, with respect to humanity, Israel, and the church.[7]

Williams emphasizes the importance of the individual or community not only grieving vocally for the present situation, but also acting in a hope-filled assurance that God will bring the individual or community through the present trial.  But, while Williams implies that action on the part of the complainer is necessary, Eklund places more emphasis on the actions of God in response to lament. In Eklund’s definition of biblical lament, all the redemptive and restorative action is God’s responsibility, and this action is taken by God in response to the lamenting cries of God’s people.

Biblical lament can be broken down and defined even further in to two sub categories: individual biblical lament and communal biblical lament.  As the description suggests, an individual biblical lament is the lament of a single voice crying out to God in faithful complaint.  Psalm 3 is an example of an individual biblical lament and it contains the above described elements and structure of a lament:

O Lord, (Address)

how many are my foes!

Many are rising against me;

Many are saying to me, “There is no help for you in God.” (Complaint)

But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory and the one who lifts up my head.

I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill (Expression of Trust)

 

I lie down and sleep; I wake up again, for the Lord sustains me.

I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.

Rise up, O Lord!

Deliver me, O my God!

For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;

you break the teeth of the wicked. (Request)

Deliverance belongs to the Lord;

may your blessings be on your people!

(Psalm 3:1-8)

Whereas an individual lament is the cry of a lone voice, a communal lament is the complaint of a community; the cry of a gathered group of people.  Psalm 74 is an example of such a communal lament. It also contains the elements of a typical lament and follows the classic lament structure.  In verse one is the simple address, “O God…,” followed by the complaining question, “…why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture” (Psalm 74:1).  The complaint is developed as the people describe to God each of the transgressions of their foes: “They behaved like men wielding axes…They smashed all the carved paneling…They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name” (Psalm 74:5-7).  The expression of trust comes, in verses 12-17, before the request of the people is brought before God at the close of the Psalm: “Have regard for your covenant…Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame; let the poor and needy praise your name. Rise up, O God, plead your cause…” (Psalm 74:20-22).

Individual Lament & Communal Lament in the Civil Rights Movement

When I consider biblical lament as I believe it was manifested in the Civil Rights Movement, I believe that both the emphases of Williams and Eklund (i.e. crying out to God and acting in hopeful assurance) were necessarily present in the movement.  I also see clear examples of both individual and communal lament.

The cries of the African American community were heard clearly in the words of the songs and spirituals that were sung at mass meetings.  In a recent Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama I visited many significant sites.  Three such sites were churches in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma: Bethel Baptist Church, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, and Brown Chapel AME Church, respectively.  As our group visited each site we were hosted by a local church member/tour guide.  In each place our guides either played recorded spirituals for us, or they led us in song themselves.  In Bethel Baptist Church, Martha Bouyer, executive director of the Historic Bethel Baptist Church Foundation made a point of making sure our group understood the prevailing theme of the songs she played to us, namely that they were all a cry for freedom and they were being sung out by an entire gathered community who had become “tired of being trampled by oppression.”[8]

These songs and spirituals not only named the complaint of the people, but they gave the individual a medium through which he or she could raise his or her voice with his or her gathered community in a collective complaint.  But not only this.  These songs and spirituals, along with the inspired preaching that was also a part of the mass meetings, moved these same individuals from complaint to action – action that would ultimately bring about significant change. For example, in Montgomery, when it had been decided that a bus boycott would be a valid means of protesting injustice and inequality, there still needed to be an alternative transport plan.  The members of the African American community had to turn the lament of their spirituals and sermons into action.  And they did.  Dr King writes of one mass meeting at which  the communal lament of the mass meeting was transformed into hope-filled action:

Fortunately a mass meeting was being held that night.  There I asked all those who were willing to offer their cars to give us their names…The response was tremendous.  More than one hundred and fifty signed slips volunteering their automobiles.  Some, who were not working offered to drive in the car pool all day; others volunteered a few hours before and after work.  Practically all of the ministers offered to drive whenever they were needed.[9]

It’s clear that communal lament offered a powerful means by which the complaint of the African American community could be lifted up before God, and before one another. It is also clear that this communal lament not only voiced complaint and expressed trust in God, but also moved people from complaint to action, and gave them a hope filled vision of how different and how much better their future could be.

Individual lament also played a significant role in the story of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. Of course, the individual cries of the people who came to mass meetings, can certainly be understood as individual laments in and of themselves.  But one very significant moment of lament in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King can be considered as a turning point in his ministry and leadership in the Civil Rights Movement.  When our group visited the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church parsonage, to tour the home in which Dr. King and his family resided while King was pastor there, we moved from room to room hearing stories of some of the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement which had taken place in that very house.  Each room and each story bore its own significance in the context of the overall Civil Rights Alabama story, but one in particular stood out.  Our guide, Dr. Shirley Cherry, finished of our tour in the kitchen of the parsonage and told us the story of a moment of individual lament which had taken place there.  Dr. King had endured a difficult period in which he and his family had received many threats and harassments.  These threats had taken their toll on Dr. King, and had brought him to a point in which he no longer felt he could go on in his prominent leadership role.  One evening, he had received another threatening phone call, and found himself unable to sleep.  He rose from his bed and made his way to the kitchen, and having made some coffee, sat at the table.  Dr. King himself described this significant moment of personal lament in his book, Stride Toward Freedom:

I got out of bed and began to walk the floor.  Finally, I went down to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee.  I was ready to give up.  With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.  In this state of exhaustion, with my courage all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God.  With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.  The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory.  “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right.  But now I am afraid.  The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter.  I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left.  I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”[10]

 

King goes on to describe the moments after he prayed this prayer as being moments in which he experienced the presence of the Divine like he never had before.  He states that he heard a voice of quiet assurance which affirmed his ministry and role.  Having experienced this, King writes, “Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.”[11]

King’s individual lament at the kitchen table in the Dexter Avenue Church parsonage was a turning point in his ministry and leadership, and thus was a turning point also for the Civil Rights Movement.  Both King’s individual lament, and the communal lament of the people expressed in mass meetings and in the singing of spirituals serve as evidence of the crucial role that biblical lament played in the life and story of the Alabama Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

During my Alabama Pilgrimage, I had the opportunity, with our group, to tour several museums and centers established to continue telling the story of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.  In centers in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma one exhibit seemed to be common: the repeated playing of Dr. King’s most famous speeches.  The one that remains prominent in my mind is the speech, Our God is Marching On, delivered in Montgomery, Alabama on March 25th, 1965.

On returning from the Pilgrimage, I sought out the text of the entire speech for study and reflection.  As I read through it, I began to notice the recognized elements of biblical lament.  Of course, it would not be fair to argue that this speech was structured as a lament given that it was a celebratory speech delivered on the arrival in Montgomery of the march from Selma.  However, as much as the speech is a celebratory one, it is also clear that Dr. King’s purpose was not only to celebrate, but also to remind the people gathered of how far they had come and how far they still had to go.

The speech is not a biblical lament in that it does not open with a direct ‘address’ to God, although God is certainly referenced, and given glory at the conclusion.  But the other elements of biblical lament can be seen throughout.  There is a long litany of ‘complaint,’ as Dr. King charts the history of the African American people and their long struggle with inequality and injustice.  The complaint is emphasized again at the conclusion of the speech:

Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken our understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the south, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men…[12]

The ‘request’ element is found in the section of the speech in which King implores his listeners to continue in their triumphant march.  And the ‘expression of trust’ is evident in a two-fold way.  First, Dr. King expresses trust in the non-violent means by which the people have come so far.  But ultimately, King’s expression of trust is found in his assertion of confidence in truth, and in God:

“I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again…How long? Not long because…His truth is marching on.”[13]

 As stated above, it would be too far to argue that this speech is a biblical lament, but a careful reading of this speech does show that Dr. King, either knowingly or unknowingly, employed the elements of biblical lament as he called listeners to “continue their triumphant march to the realization of the American dream.” King employed the elements of biblical lament to voice the complaint of the people, to call them to continue in their action, and to continue to give them a hope-filled vision of a better future for their community in the United States.

Conclusion

Whether it was in the singing of spirituals in mass meetings, in the lamenting Divine encounters of individuals in their most weak and vulnerable moments, or in the words of speeches made by leaders that voiced the collective complaint of the African American community and called them to move from bemoaning hardship to pro-actively seeking change, it is clear that the ancient tradition of biblical lament played a uniquely significant part in the life of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

It was in lamenting together as a community that complaint was made before God regarding the injustice of inequality and harsh treatment.  It was in lamenting together that the African American community moved from mere complaint to non-violent, and, ultimately, change-inducing action.  And it was in biblical lamenting (which is distinctive because it arrives at hope, and always ends up trusting in God’s promise of a better future) that the people maintained a vision of how life could be different and better for them.

Unfortunately, in the 21st century American church, the practice of biblical lament sometimes seems to be all but lost.  Perhaps it is time for the  church to look back, just a few short decades, at the Civil Rights Movement and learn again the deep value of lament; of complaining in faith to God regarding the plight of an individual or a community, of being moved beyond complaint to action, and of maintaining trust in God for a different future.  It is my position that by learning lessons from the Civil Rights Movement, and the role of the church within it, the 21st century American church might once again mobilize its people and become a powerful catalyst for positive, kingdom change throughout society.

 

[1] Douglas F. Powe, New Wine, New Wineskins, (Nashville: Abingdon, 20012) 29.

[2] Dictionary.com, ‘Lament’ definition, accessed August 30th, 2017. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/lament

[3] Denise Dombkowski-Hopkins, Journey Through the Psalms, (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice

Press, 2002) 81-82.

[4] Logan C. Jones. “The Psalms of Lament and the Transformation of Sorrow.” The Journal Of Pastoral Care & Counseling 61, no. 1-2 (2007): 47-58.

[5] Hopkins, Journey Through the Psalms, 82.

[6] Andrew Williams. “Biblical Lament and Political Protest” Accessed August 30th, 2017 http://www.jubilee-centre.org/biblical-lament-political-protest-andrew-williams/

[7] Rebekah Eklund, “Lord, Teach Us How to Grieve: Jesus’ Laments and Christian Hope.” In Biblical Lament and Political Protest, Andrew Williams.  Accessed August 30th, 2017 http://www.jubilee-centre.org/biblical-lament-political-protest-andrew-williams/

[8] Martin Luther King, Stride Towards Freedom, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958) 54.

[9] King, Stride Towards Freedom, 61.

[10] King, Stride Toward Freedom, 124-125.

[11] King, Stride Toward Freedom, 125.

[12] Martin Luther King, “Our God is Marching On.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute (Stanford University), Accessed on 19th September, 2017. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/our-god-marching

[13] King, “Our God is Marching On.” Accessed on 19th September, 2017. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/our-god-marching

 

Bibliography

Dictionary.com, ‘Lament’ definition, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/lament

Dombkowski-Hopkins, Denise, Journey Through the Psalms, St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2002

Jones, Logan C. “The Psalms of Lament and the Transformation of Sorrow.” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling: Advancing Theory and Professional Practice through Scholarly and Reflective Publications, vol. 61, no. 1-2, 2007, pp. 47–58.

King, Martin Luther. “Our God Is Marching On!” Our God Is Marching On! | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute , http://www.kinginstitute.stanford.edu/our-god-marching.

King, Martin Luther, Stride Towards Freedom, Boston: Beacon Press, 1958

Powe, Douglas F., New Wine, New Wineskins, Nashville: Abingdon, 20012.

Williams, Andrew. “Biblical Lament and Political Protest by Andrew Williams.” Jubilee Centre, Jubilee Centre, 6 Oct. 2014, http://www.jubilee-centre.org/biblical-lament-political-protest-andrew-williams/.

Making Sense of the Bible and Violence

Beware of god

Below is the script from which I preached a recent sermon on “Making Sense of the Bible and Violence.” The Sermon was preached in the context of a series called Making Sense of the Bible based on the book of the same title by Adam Hamilton.

At the beginning you will see a list of traveling car games that will not make much sense. They were used as reminder points for me as I told an introductory story illustrating our (humans) varied points of relationship with violence. The main point was that we are both entertained by violence and sickened by it too.

After the introductory point, the script begins to make more sense as a readable sermon.

Sermon feedback was very positive. I sense a large number of our congregation have struggled with the problems of biblical literalism for some time. In this sermon, and in this series, they have discovered some freedom.

I post it here as a record of the preach

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We have an interesting relationship with violence, don’t we?

Think about it for a minute with me as I give you an example.

Car games:
License Plate Game
Skittles
The daddy of all car games – Punch Buggy
Jackson – caring, loving, non-violent soul (thank God)
– weak punch
– teaching him to punch – a rite of passage

We have an interesting relationship with violence.

We kind of enjoy it on one level
WWE
UFC
Mayweather/McGregor
Rugby
Hockey
Football

We are entertained by violence and we like it on one level

And we abhor it on another. We looked on in disbelief on September 11th 2001, as some individuals took it upon themselves to commit an horrendous act of violence which ended up changing our world.

Personally speaking, I have had a changing relationship with violence.

Growing up in a violent, conflict ridden country like Northern Ireland
– It normalized violence – the new reports, the hatred, the complete devaluation of human life was all just normal, and not shocking.
– It never made me bat an eyelid as a boy. It was just what humans do. Right?

– But i am not a little boy any more.
– I have made two wee humans of my own.
– I have seen the devastating effects of violence on a person’s life and I have concluded that, in fact, violence does nothing but beget more violence in the world.
– Dunkirk movie
– compelling watch, but not entertaining
– found it hard work because I was grieving it – grieving the violent depictions of those moments in human history.
– I was grieving what human beings are capable of doing to one another in the name of politics, territory, economy; in the name of war.

We have a strange relationship with violence.

We are entertained by it.

It is somewhat normalized in our world.
And yet we abhor it.

We never want to be the victims of violence. I imagine we never want to perpetrate violence either.

As humans, we have a strange, mixed up relationship with violence.

And, for sure, it can seem that the Bible does too.

We spend a lot of time in church reading in the NT about Jesus who is the very image of God.
We reflect on Jesus the Prince of Peace
– Jesus the one who said love your enemies and pray for them.
– Jesus who taught us to turn the other cheek
– Jesus who will turn swords into ploughshares and spears to pruning hooks.
– Jesus who said blessed are the peacemakers.

But we are people of the whole book.
Our story does not simply start in the New Testament. Our story starts at the very beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. As we have said in the last number of weeks, our story, as humans, is found in the story of Israel and their relationship with God.

In that story we see a God who is loving and compassionate and forgiving of Israel.
In that story we see a God who is willing to rescue his people from slavery.
In that story we see a God who is willing to make a piece of land available to these people; the Promised Land.
In that story we see a God, who they report, was willing to completely annihilate the occupants of that piece of land in order to give it to Israel.

Time and time again, the writers of the Old Testament testify to a God who regularly would take sides in a fight, and who would willingly wipe out the opposition – men, women, children, animals…
We encounter a God who, on initial reading of the words in the Old Testament, seems like a bit of a monster.

So how do we make sense of that?

I am going to begin to sound like a bit of a broken record in this series, but it all comes back to what your starting point with Scripture is.

If we take a literalist position on Scripture, that is that God dictated each and every word of the Bible as we know it today, and that there are no faults, contradictions or discrepancies there in, then we can conclude that God is a violent God, and that God does love and come alongside some humans more than others.

We can also conclude that since we are made in God’s image, and God uses violence, then it is okay for us to be violent too, because God is or was.

And finally we can also conclude that God is not the same yesterday, today and forever as the Bible says God is, because the images of God that we read in the Old and New Testaments are so vastly different in nature that one can do nothing but conclude that these are either different God’s, or else the one God of the Bible has an absolutely confused identity.

Now if we are Biblical literalists, then we simply accept all this. We accept the violence of God, by saying that God is God and God can choose to use whatever means God desires to get the job done. God can give and God can take as God pleases. If God did it that way, then thats just the way it is, and we can rejoice that God chose us and not the others, right?

But, like I have said already, Biblical literalism can get us into trouble.

If we are literalists then we better not be eating any shell fish. There’s a law against that.
If we are literalists then we better hope our children are not unruly, because the Bible commands the death penalty for such rebellion.
If we are literalists then we better hope our boss doesn’t want us to work on the Sabbath because that offense also warrants the death penalty.

And then there is already mentioned problem of Jesus, for the literalist. Jesus is the very image of the invisible God, according to the writer of the letter to the Colossians. If you want to see God, then look to Jesus because God the Son is one with God the Father. But Jesus, God the Son, is night and day different from the God we read of in the Old Testament.

So the first thing that we have to do is remember that the Bible is a complex collection of ancient inspired writing. It is the writings of people in very different times, in which they seek to communicate their understanding of God and God’s involvement in their lives. In essence, when we read the Scripture and are beginning to try to make sense of the violence in the Old Testament, we must remember the absolute humanity of the authors, and therefore the humanity of the text. These were human authors, with human experiences, in a human culture and a historical context different to our own. When we read these tough and violent texts we must do the work of understanding the world that was being written about – a world very different to our own world in these days.

You see, when we remember the humanity of the authors it becomes possible to remember that they were likely writing to represent what they thought about God, rather than than what God actually told them to say.

When they won a violent battle victory, of course they were going to say that God was with them and God gave them that victory. That’s what we do as humans who believe in the divine. In another movie about the military that I watched recently, there is a part where the Captain of the platoon is giving a rousing speech to his men, and when he is done he invites the chaplain to come and say a prayer with them; to invoke the mighty hand of God to protect them and go before them.

When Israel won a hard fought victory, or when the Hebrew people took control of the Promised land at great cost to the human life which had existed there before hand, God was given the glory and God was given the praise because God had given them the victory.

Make no mistake, friends, the first century Ancient Near Eastern world was a world in which conquest and conflict between tribes and nations was common. This was a violent world. Therefore the writers of the ancient works that we today call Scripture had to write in order to make sense of God in the context of a violent world filled with violent and power hungry humans.

And this world is the same in the New Testament. In the NT world it is the time of the Roman Empire – a battle happy and quite blood thirsty, conquesting empire. In the New Testament and in the gospels in particular, perhaps the best example of the violent world that it still was is in the fact that crucifixion was still an accepted form of criminal punishment. The human bent toward violence in Biblical times is absolutely witnessed to in the gospel accounts of the passion, crucifixion and death of Christ Jesus.

Jesus.

There’s that name again. The name that we can’t get away from.

You see Jesus is the fullest and most fathomable expression of God that we can ever look to. When we look to Jesus, we are looking at God, because Jesus is God the Son – the very Word of God. John’s Gospel states that – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the very beginning God.” The two cannot be separated and that is why, Adam Hamilton argues, and i stand with him on this, we must read the words of the Biblical text through the lens of the person, ministry, heart and words of Jesus Christ. That means that when we read a passage in the Bible that seems contrary to the life, ministry and Kingdom message of Jesus, who is the Word of God, we are being invited to ask questions and to do the work of making sense of the passage in light of who God has testified to being in Christ Jesus.

So today, I put across the argument, which you might disagree with, that God is in nature and essence loving, good, compassionate and merciful. God seeks peace in human relationships and God grieves when we attack, maim and hurt one another. Today i put it to you that the violence attributed to God in the Bible is actually the violence of sinful human beings whose hearts perennially struggle to be in control of the world around them; whose hearts are power hungry and are willing to become violent in the pursuit of power and control.

Jesus invites us to declare that God is King and to surrender control. Jesus invites his followers not to the violent way of conquest and conflict, but to the way of peace-making and non-violence. In fact when we look at the cross we see that not only is Jesus non-violent, but in fact Jesus submits himself to the violence of humans. Jesus submits himself to a violent death at the hands of humans in order to show them that in God, death has no victory or sting; that death does not win; that in God we find life in all its complete; we find peace.

How do we make sense of the violence in the Old Testament?

We remember the times which were being written about – times very different to our own.
We remember the humanity of the writers and that in their humanity they were doing their best to testify to God.
We remember that they were interpreting the times around them with the tools they had in their box – the tools of a context and culture which was bloody and violent in a way that our context and culture is not.
We remember that we can only interpret the seeming violent God of the OT by looking through the lens of Jesus, the Word in the NT.

In this sermon I am not trying to excuse the violence by saying that this is just the way things were back in the day.

Rather, in this sermon I am trying to give you a framework within which you might begin to make sense of this difficult theme in Scripture.

In this sermon, and in every sermon, I am trying to point you to Jesus – the very image of God here on earth; the name above all names; the Prince of peace; our rock and our redeemer, who bore the violence of sinful man so that all of us may know freedom; so that all of us may know first hand the love of God; so that all of us might experience in Christ the transforming grace that calls us each to die to ourselves and rise up to new life in Christ

I am trying to point you to Jesus as the only lens through which we must interpret Scripture and the world around us.

How do we make sense of the violence in the Old Testament?

We develop a framework for understanding it by understanding the humanity of the authors and the culture and context of the world they inhabited and were trying to make sense of, of course. But ultimately we look to Jesus as our master and we hear Jesus’ say “Blessed are the Peacemakers…Love your enemies and pray for them…turn the other cheek.