Stand Still, O Beautiful End

The second week of Advent is the time for declaring our hope for God’s peace. We cry peace, peace when there is no peace. Our journey with the poets has noted a dissonance between our anxious thoughts and war-torn world, and Advent promise. Too often what we call peace in this life, is just a diversion and distraction—a turning a blind eye to the suffering of the world. We stuff down our wounds. We comfort our souls with wine and song.

But we know that there are people struggling, hurting dying. We know about those desperate migrants who have fled the violence, economic and politic instability in Central America; the tenuous relationship between Israel and Palestine, starving children in Yemen, and we’ve heard something about escalating violence in the Philippines. All this seems so far away and abstract. We know we probably should care more than we do and that this is just the tip of the iceberg of the suffering of the world. There are so many stories we don’t know and hurts we’ve not heard about. We are aware, when we listen the anxious cry of our own hearts and though we may have some small measure of inner peace it is fleeting and we are ever aware of the ways we don’t experience it. Yet. 

Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengalese poet was the first non-western Nobel Prize for Literature laureate (1913).  Called the Bard of Bengal, he  was given a knighthood by King George V but later denounced it in protest of the British Indian Army’s Jallianwala Bagh massacre. His novels touch on the violence of Colonial powers and the violence between Hindus and Muslims in India. His poem, Peace, My Heart (part of his Gardener cycle) describes our common longing for peace:

Peace, my heart, let the time for
the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain
into songs.
Let the flight through the sky end
in the folding of the wings over the
nest.
Let the last touch of your hands be
gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a
moment, and say your last words in
silence.
I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

For Tagore, peace was what awaited us in death— a release from the heartache and pain of existence when we are reunited with the Cosmos. This idea is more Eastern than Western and reflects Tagore’s religious and spiritual worldview. Yet he captures what it means to be at peace, much of which is echoed in our own scriptures:

  • Not be a  death but completeness—from fragmentation to being made whole (Luke 17:19 “Your faith has made you whole”).
  • Love melting into memory and pain melting into song (Psalm 126:5, They that sow in tears will reap with songs of joy).
  • Our flight through the sky ending with us safe the nest, under the wings of a Mother bird (cf. Psalm 91:4, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”).
  • Our last touch of our hands gentle like a flower in the night (Philippians 4:5, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near”).

Qoheleth wrote that God set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Strangely anxious souls though we are, we long for and can describe a peace we know little, experientially about.  Torah written on the hearts of humanity (Romans 2:15), we all hunger for the peace of God to come.  Our heart testifies to us—we long for what none of us has, yet. 

Stand still, O beautiful end. . . .I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

On thoughts & prayers

This blog is called thoughts, prayers & songs.  Here, I think through issues related to theology, justice, calling, and faith, or whatever comes to mind.  My thinking has been shaped by the reading of books and I have reviewed many books here (and on my Goodreads account), but I don’t think of this primarily as a ‘book review blog.’ It is a blog, and books are some of my conversation partners as I think through issues, and seek to grow in my Christian walk. I know stuff, but I don’t want to just be knowledgeable. I want to be wise and have a vibrant devotional life: to pray, read Scripture, and live out a compelling, missional faith. I want to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God. So, in addition to book reviews, I have intermittent liturgical reflections, poems, scriptural musings and theological meanderings.  My blog tagline “My journey from self-absorption to doxology” captures the movement that I strive toward:

From thoughts, ⇒  to prayers, ⇒  to & songs.

And I hope people take the journey with me.

Nevertheless, I know thoughts & prayers have fallen on hard times (few people will rail against songs, though a rare unmusical soul may try). Thoughts & prayers are offered across social-media whenever a friend or loved one is facing trying circumstances. A lost job, an unwelcome diagnosis, the death of a family member. “You are in my thoughts & prayers.[insert heart emoji and cryface].When we hear these words from friends, we understand that they are saying that they care and that they are holding us in their heart while we are in a difficult place. But when a politician says it in the wake of yet another tragedy we feel more cynical:

“I’d like to begin by sending our thoughts and prayers to the people of Puerto Rico, who have been struck by storms of historic and catastrophic severity,” -Donald J. Trump (source, Business Insider, “Trump on Peurto Rico Crisis,” Sept. 29, 2017)

“My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Nepal” Hillary Clinton on Twitter, April 25, 2015)

Our cynicism about politicians offering thoughts & prayers is because we perceive they have the power to do something about the situation, but are not responding in a tangible way. If they offer up thoughts and prayers but fail to act to alleviate the suffering of others than we feel like they don’t care, they just say they do. This is especially true in the aftermath of gun violence. Democrats and media outlets have criticized a number of GOP politicians for offering thoughts and prayers in the wake of both last year’s Orlando shooting at Pulse night club, and last week’s shooting in Las Vegas. Here is a sampling of headlines:

GOP Congressmen Offer “Thoughts and Prayers.” Here’s How Much the NRA Gave Them to Offer Nothing More. (Slate, June 12, 2016)

Why ‘thoughts and prayers’ is starting to sound so profane (Washinton Post, Oct. 3, 2017)

Rubio and Florida GOP Offer Vegas “Thoughts and Prayers” While Taking Thousands of Dollars From NRA  (Miami  New Times, Oct. 3, 2017)

THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS AND NOT MUCH MORE: POLITICIANS REACT TO LAS VEGAS SHOOTING (Newsweek, Oct. 2, 2017)

Messenger: America, land of thoughts and prayers, mourns its dead, again (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct 2, 2017)

This growing angst against thoughts & prayers in the wake of recent gun violence is due to a lack of effort on the part of Congress to pass some sort of common sense gun control law. Certainly, they feel bad for the people in Vegas who were killed or injured when Stephen Paddock unleashed his arsenal on a Country Music festival. But the NRA has given a number of our congresspeople thousands of dollars and Christians in America are more likely to own a gun and be pro-gun than any other segment of the population. So, nothing happens. But thoughts & prayers.

Or worse, instead of thoughts & prayers, we allow our fear of the other to cloud our thoughts and prayers. Instead of thinking or praying, we beef up our arsenals and prepare for the worst. If a bad hombre threatens us or our family, we are prepared and can take him out before he does any damage.

A couple of years ago, I was pastoring a church in Florida. When Dylann Roof shot up Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, one of the elders asked me if I wanted him to start carrying his gun to church in case someone decided to shoot up our congregation (he had a conceal carry permit). I declined the offer, but I get this desire for self-protection. There are bad people in the world and nobody wants to be a victim.

Good people carrying guns in church sounds so sensible. Didn’t Jesus say, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one”? But two swords were enough for the whole lot of twelve disciples and I can’t see Jesus giving his blessing automatic assault weapons with armor piercing rounds. Those who live by the sword perish by the sword.

I follow Jesus. He is the Prince of Peace, Mr. Turn-the-Other-Cheek. He overcame the violence of his age by submitting to death on a Roman cross. I think and I pray to be shaped in the image of Christ. I want to be like Jesus. And while I have had few real-world opportunities to practice the non-violence of Jesus, this is the way of the cross. Christ followers who think and pray about the state of the world will be moved to a certain sort of action. Their response to violence will be cruciform. Thinking and praying are formational activities.

Some liberals and media pundits get hung up on thoughts and prayers, but thoughts & prayers are not our problems. Failing to act is the problem, both in the wake of tragedy and proactively to avert a crisis. I feel the weight of my own critique here. I am a reader and a thinker and can be accused of living too much in my mind sometimes. Yet, thoughtless actions wreak havoc on the world and prayer-less lives have no Divine spark. Think, pray and act, so that your life may become a song.

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Lenten Prayers from Walter Brueggemann

The following two prayers are excerpted from a collection of Walter Brueggemann’s prayers Awed to Heaven Rooted in Earth (153-4). Brueggemann  is brilliant at exposing our complicity in systems of injustice (both in his scholarship and prayers). May these prayers guide us in this season of repentance:

Loss is Indeed Our Gain

The Pushing and Shoving in the world is endless.

      We are pushed and shoved.

      And we do our share of pushing and shoving

           in our great anxiety.

     And in the middle of that

           you have set down your beloved suffering son

           who was like a sheep led to slaughter

            who opened not his mouth.

     We seem not able,

     so we ask you to create space in our life

     where we may ponder his suffering

     and your summons for us to suffer with him,

     suspecting that suffering is the only way to newness.

So we pray for your church in these Lenten days,

     when we are driven to denial —

           not to notice the suffering, 

           not to engage it,

           not to acknowledge it.

So be that way of truth among us

       that we should not deceive ourselves

That we shall see that loss is indeed our gain.

We give you thanks for that mystery from which we live.

Amen.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Revise our taking

You, You giver!

You have given light and life to the world;

You have given freedom from Pharaoh to your people Israel;

You have given your only Son for the sake of the world;

You have given yourself to us;

You have given and forgiven,

                 and you remember our sins no more. 

And we, in response, are takers:

       We take eagerly what you give us;

       we take from our neighbors near at hand as is acceptable;

       we take from our unseen neighbors greedily and acquisitively;

       we take from our weak neighbors thoutlessly;

       we take all that we can lay our hands on.

It dawns on us that our taking does not match your giving.

In this Lenten season revise our taking,

               that it may be grateful and disciplined

              even as you give in was generous and overwhelming.

Amen