Singing Songs in a Strange Land

Last night, for Holocaust Memorial Day, I attended a remembrance service at Havurah Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist Synagogue in nearby Ashland.  I had noted the service was happening when I posted a recent review for Rabbi David Zaslow’s Exodus (he leads the congregation). The service was jointly held with Temple Emek Shalom, the other Jewish congregation in town.  I knew that Rabbi Zaslow wouldn’t be there. He marked the day in a different way, spending the day at Auschwitz on a trip with thousands of youth.

5116a2dd8cff4_71360bThe theme for the service was the ‘righteous Gentiles’—those who hid Jews and aided their escape from the Shoah. I don’t know what age to introduce the horrors of holocaust to children, but  my girls recently read a book of notable biographies of ‘girls who changed the world,’ and one of the women profiled was Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian survivor of the Holocaust, who’s family was active in helping Jews escape.  Both girls were interested, so the plan was to take my daughters, ages seven and nine with me. Unfortunately, my older daughter was running a fever, so it was just me and my seven-year-old. She was by far the youngest person there.

It was a solemn service, recounting dark days, though not without hope. Some teenage girls lit candles remembering the names of victims that were assigned to them as part of their mitzvah project, children whose life was cut short by the Shoah. A few brief sentences recounted their names and ages. These were children as young as four, and a couple of them were seven-year-olds. I wondered how my own seven-year-old was processing this, but we still haven’t talked together about that part of the service.

After this, a sole holocaust survivor lit a candle remembering the fallen. and we were all invited to do the same. My little girl burnt her finger on the match while trying to get the candle lit. She later recalled that burning her finger was the part of the service she didn’t like.

Throughout the evening we sang Hebrew songs, and listened to chants, and prayed along with the Mourners’ Kaddish, but most of the evening was about hearing the stories of gentiles, some of whom sacrificed their lives to rescue Jews.  Several people read or shared accounts. A strange and unplanned confluence was that the first gentile profiled, Irena Sendler—a woman who had saved 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto—was responsible for rescuing the sole survivor who was with us last night. Some of the stories shared were of famous people. Other stories came from personal recollections and family stories of righteous Gentiles, names that are not well known beyond small circles.

The systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis, as well as the death of five million sympathizers, Slavs, LGBT folk, and the disabled, is a vivid reminder of our human capacity for evil. Against those who would deny the Holocaust, or minimize its significance, remembering is important.  I am a Christian, not Jewish. Attending a synagogue on a day like yesterday feels a bit like singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, but the chorus and the cadence call us to compassion and solidarity.

It is over seventy years later and there is still so much hate in the world.  If it happened again would we be among the righteous? I want to say yes, but I am humbled when I consider that many European Christians participated in the Shoah and few who resisted cited faith as a determining factor in giving aid.

U is for Upending (an alphabet for penitents)

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” -Matthew 21:12-13

Until Jesus entered the temple courts he was hailed as Israel’s Messianic hope—the Anointed One who would return to save people from their oppression.  His first act after to riding into town, shouts of Hosanna still ringing in his ears, was to fashion a makeshift whip, overturn the tables of money changers in the temple courts.

The Passion Conference and Maranatha weren’t the first to turn worship into big business. In the 1st century, worshippers came to the temple and sacrificed animals to God. The offering of the poor was a dove. Doves were available to them if they would just pay a fee plus a surplus tax. Money changers exchanged the coins of diaspora Jews for the temple coin, the Tyrian shekel (a coin without a graven image on it). This exchange was not in their favor.

Temple economics were the antithesis of care for the poor, widowed, orphaned and foreigners (Zechariah 7:10). It was a system of exploitation and it made a mockery out of the worship of God that was supposed to be happening there. A den of robbers, not a house of prayer.

Overturning the tables (or destruction of property during a protest) did not and does not bring about immediate change. However, this wasn’t just a one-time thing. Jesus entire ministry involved upending our expectations and socio-political systems. In The Upside-Down Kingdom (Herald Press, Updated Edition, 2011), Donald Kraybill writes, “From beginning to end, from start to finish, the thread of inversion and irony weaves its ways through the gospel”(211).  He began his public ministry reading these words from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isaiah 61:1,2).

All throughout his ministry, Jesus challenged systems of oppression, spiritual elitism, gender roles, structures, and Empire. By the necessity, the Kingdom of God upends all other contenders to the throne and welcomes a new way of life where the poor, the prisoners, the blind and lame find love and welcome.  Yet it was Jesus’ symbolic act, upending of tables in the temple courts, which very well be the act which got him killed.

If you follow the story through, you know the upending was not done. Jesus would take a cross, the symbol of Roman dominance over any would-be revolutionary, and turned it into a symbol of how far God would go to welcome us home. The first witnesses to his resurrection (women) defied cultural expectations. And Jesus’ surprising upending still happens whenever people choose to live by the values of upside-down kingdom instead of the American dream.

A decade ago, a craze hit the Christian world—rubber bracelets stamped with the letters “WWJD?” There was other Kitsch as well: t-shirts, necklaces, hats, temporary tattoos, pencils, travel mugs, etc. The letters stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” and were drawn from the ninteenth century novel by Charles Sheldon, In His Steps. The idea behind the slogan (and the novel) was that as we go about our daily life, in whatever sphere we find ourselves, we ask “what would Jesus do right now if he were in our shoes?” My sarcastic reply whenever I saw WWJD bling on the wrist of a friend was, “Jesus wouldn’t buy that.” And it’s true because he already would know what he’d do.

We live in a world where the rich profit off the poor, “a livable wage” is fodder for political debate, bombing another country is framed as humanitarian relief, and refugees and immigrants are regarded with suspicion, minorities still suffer discrimination. I think it is  now time for us to stand with Jesus in the temple courts, fashion our makeshift whips and ask, “What Would Jesus Upend?”

 

N is for Non-Violence (an alphabet for penitents).

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

-1 Cor. 1:18

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. -1 Cor. 2:2

Non-violence is not passive pacifism. It is not a silent winking at injustice. Non violence is the way of the cross.

Violence is regarded both as a problem—gun violence, bullying, terrorism, war—and a necessity. How else are we going to quash terrorism, depose dictators, police inner-cities and create the conditions necessary for peace? While pacifism was the default position of the early church, Christian’s gradually accepted military service and war. Augustine’s famously articulated what has come to be known as Just War Theory— a statement on the conditions of when war is a moral good (or at least a moral necessity). John Howard Yoder rightly questioned whether the conditions of Just War have ever been satisfied, though even within the constraints of Just War theory, the cessation of violence is the goal, and war ought to be rare.

In the gospels, and in our celebration of Lent, we are reminded that Jesus’ answer to human violence was not war and violence but a cross. He didn’t kick-ass and take names. He rode a donkey foal into Jerusalem, knowing he would die there. He gave his life to bring an end to the cycle of human violence. Following Jesus means walking with Him on Calvary road. Our Model in life and conduct chose self-sacrifice over destruction and harm.

How do you combat the evils in the world? What should be our response to terrorism? The horror of ISIS and the refugee crisis? What about North Korean nuclear armament? Or Russia’s encroachment in Crimea? Or racial violence against African students in India?

Closer to home, what about policies like stop-and-frisk, the incarceration of minorities or injustice toward immigrant communities? What about the proliferation of hate crimes against Jews and Muslims? Violence How do we respond?

The answer is the cross. It was Jesus response, and it should be ours too.

Following Jesus means that our imagination is cruciform. We are shaped by Christ’s cross as we take up our own cross and follow him (Matt 16:24). Against the violence which pervades our culture and our world, we are being shaped into God’s non-violent people.

There are practical questions about what this means, especially as we aim non-violence at large systemic and trans-national problems.  But then again how was a crucifixion (a death sentence for failed revolutionaries) in a marginal province of the Roman Empire a decisive response to human sinfulness? The past century showed us several examples (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela) of the power of non-violence to effect social change. But more than that if we participate with the Son of God in his cross, we can expect that God to continue his good work in us and our world.

 

 

M is for the Marginalized (an alphabet for penitents).

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. -Matthew 9:11-14

 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”-Matthew 11:19

Maybe Lent has been easy for you. You gave up something you shouldn’t imbibe too much anyway and after an initial struggle, you’ve starting to feel the freedom in new routines and habits.  But is that really the point? It is possible to keep our little rule and our little fast and fail to follow Jesus—going where he goes and loving who he loved.

Jesus’ critics called him a friend of tax collectors and sinners, indicating he had the wrong sort of friends. He loved the religious outsiders—those colluding in the Roman occupation and profiting from injustice,  and those who weren’t welcome in the temple because of their lifestyle. Jesus was a lover of the marginalized, the outsider.

He came from a tiny rural village, conducting much of his ministry in Galilee, far away from the seat of power and the religious establishment. He had friends in low places, and outside of a couple of Pharisee friends, he didn’t have strong relationships with the ‘right’ sort of people. The crowds that came to him were the poor, the disenfranchised, the revolutionaries, the tax collectors, and the sinners. These were those without hope in the socio-political world of the Roman Empire or the religious world of first-century Judaism.

What strikes me as odd, is how a season of Lent, which is all about following Jesus, has become such an insider affair. Ash Wednesday is for insiders. Religious outsiders don’t get it: “You got some grease on your head.” “Dude, wash your face!” Lenten fasting is a strange cultural artifact for the wider culture: “So what are the rules of Lent?” “You are giving up what? Why would you want to do a thing like that?” None of what we do seems to make sense from the outside, and yet the outsiders are with whom Jesus spent most of his time.

If our Lenten fasting helps us apprehend the truth about Jesus and his place in our lives, and if the season is about following him, then we need to be intentional about connecting with the margins. In our age, as in Jesus’s, this means the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. This means the neighbor who wouldn’t be caught dead in church (likely because of bad memories of the hypocrisy she found there). It means standing up for the forgotten and invisible people in the community such as the urban and rural poor,  naming injustice and being cognisant of privilege and power dynamics, and cultivating friendships with people who have nothing to contribute to our personal success. It means attending the wrong parties and hanging out with people with the wrong lifestyle.

Of course, Jesus did all this without falling into the temptation inherent in negative peer-pressure but he was denounced as a drunkard and a glutton. He was willing to risk ‘guilt by association’ to love those on the margins. You can’t follow Jesus—go where he goes and do what he does—without making some dangerous connections. If you aren’t friends with the marginalized, who are you following?

L is for Litany (an alphabet for penitents)

lit·a·ny [ˈlitnē]

NOUN
    1. a series of petitions for use in church services or processions, usually recited by the clergy and responded to in a recurring formula by the people.

    2. a tedious recital or repetitive series: “a litany of complaints” (Source- Oxford Living Dictionaries via Bing)

 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. (Ephesians 6:18)

‘Tis the season for a tedious recital of complaints. Like Advent, the season before Christmas, Lent is a preparatory season—a season of waiting. We are nearing the midpoint and dreaming of the comforts we cast aside for our lenten journies. We want chocolate, we want sweets, we need coffee and a nice cut of meat. We want to binge watch Netflix and drink red wine and post cat memes on our friend’s timelines. We complain, “How long O Lord?” as we look forward to Resurrection (or just a return to normal life).

But we don’t just complain about our own discomfort. As we have used this Lenten season to shake our souls out of complacency  and followed Jesus on the way of the cross, we are becoming sensitized to the suffering of the world: children with absent fathers, the single mom struggling to make ends meet, a global church being martyred for their belief, people of color enduring violence, discrimination and incarceration from unjust systems, the elderly neighbor living alone, our friends gripped by grief, those suffering pain of chronic illness, the anxious and depressed, and the hurting and the dying. We should have compassion at all times, but our Lenten practice allows us to stretch our empathy and see the world beyond the comforts we use to distract our souls.

Christian worship often includes litanies. Liturgical traditions (such as Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, or the Orthodoxy) incorporate itemized prayer lists into their Sunday liturgies, often with congregational responses: Lord have mercy. Have mercy on us. Spare us, Good Lord. O Lord, deliver us. We beseech you O Lord.  Less “high church” churches, still have a place for a pastoral prayer, or ‘prayers of the people,’ which do in essence what these formal litanies do.

The line items of a litany get us to pray specifically about the needs around us in our struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. We pray for deliverance from personal sin and systemic evil. We pray for the poor, oppressed and marginalized, and for the success and wisdom of national leaders, we pray for the healing for the infirmed and the global church. We pray those who are serving Christ and that the world would long to know Him. We name every area of contemporary life in hopes of seeing God’s Kingdom break more fully into this present age.

I thought of posting a litany here, but there are tons of Lenten litanies online. For example, check out Christine Sine’s Morning Litany for Lent.  I will close this post by just saying don’t waste your seasonal discomfort and newfound empathy on personal complaints. Find some way to systematically pray for the needs of the world, preferably with a worshipping community. Keep on praying in the Spirit at all times with all kinds of prayers and requests. Certainly litanies can become dead rote, but with our hearts sensitized to the suffering of the world, it is a way to share both in the pain of others and in the Spirit’s life. Communal intercession reminds us that the Spiritual journey is not just a private affair. Always keep praying for all the Lord’s people. 

 

I is for Iconoclasm (an alphabet for penitents)

Iconoclasm is the wrong word if by it, we mean the destruction of religious images of any kind. In the Christian tradition, icons were windows to heaven meant to bring a soul into an encounter with the invisible God. But iconoclasm also means, “the action of attacking or assertively rejecting cherished beliefs and institutions or established values and practices.”¹  Part of our spiritual journey involves a tearing down of unexamined beliefs, practices, and institutions. If not iconoclasm, perhaps idoloclasm. 

We each carry assumptions about the world and ourselves. We come by them honestly, we are born with our racial identity and into a socio-economic class. We imbibe the values of the wider culture, we all drink from the same the well. But the journey into the land of repentance forces us to confront our most cherished beliefs about our self, our world, God.

Think about those most honored in our culture: the rich, the powerful, the successful, the talented, the skilled, the beautiful, the proficient, and those famous for being famous. Who does Jesus give special honor to? The poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the marginalized, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Here are Jesus words from the Beatitudes in Luke:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil,
        because of the Son of Man. 

 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

(Luke 6:20-23).

The poor, the hungry, the mourning, and the hated. These are the folks most of us, most of the time try not to see. Oh, we care about the poor, in the abstract, but we are careful to not make eye contact with the homeless man on the freeway on ramp. We believe in feeding the hungry but most of us live, lives insulated from those in dire need. We want to comfort the mourners who are weeping, but it is too hard to sit in their pain. We instead distract them (and ourselves) with Netflix and retail therapy. We know bullying is wrong and want to stand with the hated and persecuted but we feel threatened by their religion, ethnic origin, and gender identity.  A culture that values the rich, the successful and the beautiful, has difficulty including the marginalized.

And yet following Jesus demands that we embody something else. Jesus confronts our cultural values. Listen to his warning for us:

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:24-26).

Jesus warns the wealthy, the well fed, the perpetually entertained and the respectable. The people our culture honors most—the wealthy, the successful, the positive, the popular—are the folks that Jesus has his harshest words for. You have your comfort already. You will go hungry. You will mourn and weep. Your behavior is exactly how your ancestors treated false prophets. 

The axe is at the root of the tree. Our societal values are called into question. Jesus the iconoclast, comes to dismantle the personal and institutional value we place on the rich, powerful and the popular. He challenges us to enter into the pain of the invisible. Spirituality that does this is prophetic because it calls into question the idols of wealth, power, happiness, success and strength. The Beatitudes remind us that if the good news doesn’t include those on the margins, it is not good news but a mirror held up to our souls. Tear it down. 

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F is for Fasting (an alphabet for penitents)

Fasting confronts our contemporary, consumerist mindset. We don’t generally do it unless we are doing a juice fast detox or getting a colonoscopy. Lent is an exception. It is a season for fasting and many of us have given up something as part of our Lenten practice. Chocolate, cookies, sweets, Facebook or whatever. Six weeks long we lay aside the things that we go to for comfort or to numb our senses. We focus our hearts and energy on Jesus’ road to the cross. While it may be a struggle for us to not eat ice cream or meat but it won’t kill us. If we did one of those real serious fasts, like giving up all food or all food and water,for the six weeks of Lent, we’d be dead.

But what is fasting and why do we do it? To make God love us? To impress Him? Jesus doesn’t love us any more or less if you aren’t watching Netflix and dying on a cross is way more impressive than even six weeks sans coffee. So why? I think of a couple of things that fasting does at a fundamental level. First, fasting (any kind) interrupts our normal routine and enables us to see things in a new light. Second, fasting reveals our appetites.  When we purposely deprive ourselves of something, we grow more conscious of our desire for it, but we were also freed up to ask “what is this _____ feeding in me?” “What ways does this food or activity numb me to reality?”

There is a real benefit to fasting, but you can interrupt your routines, be self-aware of your appetites and still fail to please God with your fast. Isaiah 58: 5 says:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

The  kind of fast pleasing to God is this:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. (Isaiah 58:6-8)

I shared in an earlier post that I went vegan for Lent and that part of my fast includes paying attention to ways my appetite for animal flesh has made me complicit in injustice (i.e. animal cruelty, the drain on earth’s resources, pollution from animal waste). Fasting can make us aware of not only our own appetites but the ways your routines cause us to turn a blind eye to justice.

Whatever you are fasting from, use it as a window to see injustice. If you gave up chocolate you could consider how much of the world’s chocolate is gathered unethically (i.e. use of child labor). Coffee? Think about thinking about rainforest destruction and poor pay for coffee growers (there is more fair-trade, shade-grown options these days, but these just highlight the scope of the environmental impact of our consumption).  Did you give up Facebook? Consider the ways social media detracts from real-time relationships and make yourself more aware of the neglected folks in your own neighborhood.

We gave stuff up, our routines are disrupted. We are aware of our appetites and the things that we go to to fill the dull ache within. But God is pleased when the act of fasting brings to fruition repentance and justice. Fasting can make us more aware and able to respond to a suffering world. May the fruit of justice grow in us.