My Dearest Readers…

In the wake of another terror-inspired attack on American soil, I share excerpts of the sermon, The Practice of Peace, A Service of Healing in a Time of Tragedy, that I preached whilst rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, on September 16, 2001, the Sunday immediately following 9/11.

As I review and reflect on the words I uttered then, they continue to resonate within me as expressive of what I believe to be God’s way and will in what I perceive to be our increasingly dangerously wildly woolly world – replete, generally I see, with violence of all sorts in all places at all times and, particularly I think, with an American presidential campaign laden with elements of isolationism and nationalism of a prejudicial kind.

At the least, these words bespeak how I strive to live, which, in the truest sense, is always the most I daily can do.

Love, Paul

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…In our quest for a restoration of wholeness, tensions – those simultaneous, powerful counter pulls and pushes of thought and feeling within society and within our individual selves – abound…

On one side, we yearn to live in a free society “of the people, by the people, for the people”, where one’s words and actions are not overly circumscribed or overtly constrained by law. On another side, in such a society not only are the just and the righteous free, but also the unjust and the unrighteous. And we have been reminded tragically that terrorism is no longer…in some land far away, but daily festers and can flare up on our very doorstep. Hence, we long to feel safe, to be safe, which, if past responses to tragedy are any indication, often requires the imposition of restrictions…on our freedom and perhaps on our privacy…

On one side, we desire to get to “the other side” of our grieving, to reach, once again, that state of normalcy, that sense of personal safety. On another side, we recognize, even now, that when we get there, our senses of normalcy and safety will be illusory. We always are personally vulnerable, our choices notwithstanding, to changing circumstance and uncontrollable chance…

On one side, there are those who, in the midst of crisis, seek the sustaining hand of God with a faith that continues to hope in the constancy of divine care in spite of or even because of all appearances to the contrary. On another side, there are those who have no use for God. If religion, a theological enterprise concerned with the relationship between divinity and humanity, can be seen in any way to have been a trigger for this tragedy, as has been proven in multiple tragedies in human history, then one might fairly ask what good can come out of religion? Indeed, what good is God? Or one may wonder who is this God in whose name such violence is inspired or what is this human hubris that fashions a vengeful face of God?

We search for peace.

Jesus speaks of a peace “not as the world gives.” [1] This is a spiritual peace that points to the end, for it is the peace of eternal salvation, of Jesus’ abiding presence, of an unassailable, inseparable connection between earth and cosmos, humanity and divinity, now and forever. Today, however, I look not to eschatological end times, but rather at our now times, looking for a pathway to this peace.

This peace has nothing to do with the avoidance of trial or the absence of tribulation, but rather with our acknowledgement of our troubles. This peace has nothing to do with our bringing an end to our tensions and a beginning of some sentimental spirit of well-being, but rather with our facing and our wrestling with all that torments us, both from without and from within.

This peace has everything to do with our reaching constantly around the barriers we erect to keep out all that disturbs us, reaching across boundaries of difference…internal and external between our faith and our fears, our hunger for security and our acknowledgement of countless circumstances beyond…our control.  Around barriers and across boundaries racial and cultural, among black, brown, red, white, and yellow and, yes, between America and the Arab world.  Around barriers and across boundaries philosophical and theological, among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others.

This peace has everything to do with our constant embrace of “the other” beyond tolerance in a bond of mutual acceptance, understanding, and respect, even celebration. This peace has everything to do with a vision of radical diversity and inclusivity…

This is the peace of God that passes all understanding,[2] for it makes no sense to embrace difference, particularly at times of turmoil and tragedy when our human instinct is not diversity and inclusion, but rather seclusion and exclusion.

Is the pathway to this peace comfortable? No. Is it even desirable in accord with our human druthering? No. Yet, in the words of the hymn, this is “the peace of God (that) is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” Yet, also in the words of that hymn and in the words of our hearts, “let us pray for but one thing — the marvelous peace of God.”[3]

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 14.27

[2] Philippians 4.7

[3] From the hymn, They cast their nets in Galilee, The Hymnal 1982, #661, verse 4.

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God’s wrath and our deliverance

preaching a sermon, based on Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28 and Luke 15.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016

the-prophet-jeremiah-lamenting-the-coming-destruction-rembrandt-1606-1669

It would be easy for the sake of spiritual security and emotional sanity to ignore Jeremiah’s prophesy of destruction, dismissing it as an ancient word, which it is, directed at the people Judah, thus not…never at us. Yet it has an ageless quality. There is much we in our time can glean from these terrifying words that remarkably parallel a better known story in the first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,”[1] calling into being light, firmament, sea and earth, vegetation, sun, moon, and stars, creatures of all kinds and humankind[2] “and God saw that” everything “was good.”[3]

Sadly, according to Jeremiah, God “looked on the earth” seeing only “waste and void, and to the heavens, and they had no light,” no sun, moon, or stars. Because of the malfeasance of humans who “do not know” God, “have no understanding…skilled in doing evil, not knowing how to do good,” squandering the stewardship of dominion God granted at creation,[4] God’s handiwork has reverted, regressed to the primeval state with which God began when “the earth was a formless void.” Therefore, that same “wind from God,” in the Hebrew, ruach, breath or spirit, that created all things now blows “hot…from the bare heights in the desert towards my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse (but to judge) against them.”

Jeremiah prophesies nothing less than the destruction, the deconstruction, the de-creation of the cosmos by a God of wrath. But suppose we think of God’s wrath not as an emotion, a divine feeling of fury, God being upset with us and desiring to do us harm (though, yes, the English text speaks of God’s “fierce anger”[5]). Rather as the sun rises, giving light, then sets and darkness falls, so God’s wrath is a metaphor for an inherent (that is, written into the code of the universe) cosmic reactivity to a creation gone bad. In that light or perhaps shadow, let us read Jeremiah’s prophecy as less about what God does and more about what we over time have done.

I think of climate change. Despite the deniers who believe talk of climate change comes from the chirping lips of Chicken Little pseudo-scientific pessimists who think the sky is falling, I believe it’s real, too real to ignore and that humans, with our ages-old obsession with fossil fuels, are principal culprits. We have upset our Mother Earth and she is reacting. The symptoms of her distress? Rising temperatures and sea levels, mounting winds and waves, scorched earth, the erosion of seacoasts, and evaporating water resources, all affecting arable lands and agricultural production, and human habitation. All making terribly real that petition in The Great Litany: From lightning and tempest, from earthquake, fire, and flood, from plague, pestilence, and famine, Good Lord, deliver us![6]

In addition to climatic forces, I think of destruction wrought by human hands. Today, we commemorate the 15th anniversary of September 11, 2001, when terrorists at the controls of hijacked airliners brought down New York’s World Trade Center towers, damaged the Pentagon, and crashed in a Pennsylvania field killing nearly 3,000 people, injuring more than 6,000 others, causing billions of dollars in damage to property and infrastructure. Since that day of this generation’s mega-event, akin to Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., or Watergate, we have witnessed the horrifying rise of incidents of terror and hate crimes. Sadly, there is nothing new under the sun about human cruelty in whatever name, for whatever cause.

We might react to all that befalls our world and us with immobilizing dismay and active fear, save for our faith, our trust and confidence in God. Jesus, in response to the religious authorities grumbling that he “welcomes sinners,” tells parables of a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep, seeking, finding the lost one…

the-good-shepherd-le-bon-pasteur-james-tissot

and a woman searching her home for one lost coin.

the-lost-drachma-la-drachme-perdue-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Immediately following these stories, Jesus says, “There was a man who had two sons”; the Parable of the Prodigal Son making clear the point that God always is in the redemption-business. God always seeks the lost. God always is never done with us. Surely, one faithful response to God’s unconditional, unconquerable love…one faithful response to God Who is love is our repentance, turning away from our abuse of our world, turning away from our abuse of others and ourselves.

In 1989, September 1 was proclaimed by the Orthodox Church as the World Day of Prayer for the Creation. Now, September 1 through October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment, is observed ecumenically and globally as the Season of Creation. Again, today is the 15th anniversary of 9/11. In the spirit of these commemorations, one aspect of divine deliverance is our contemplation and taking action, communally and individually regarding our daily behaviors in relation to our struggling planet and one another. What can you and I do to make the world a safer, saner, sounder place?

 

Illustrations: The Prophet Jeremiah (lamenting the coming destruction), Rembrandt (1606-1669); The Good Shepherd (Le bon pasteur) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum; The Lost Drachma (La drachme perdue) (1886-1894), James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] Genesis 1.1, 2

[2] Genesis 1.3, 6-7, 9-10, 11-12, 14-16, 20-25, 26-27

[3] Genesis 1.4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31

[4] Genesis 1.26

[5] Jeremiah 4.26

[6] The Book of Common Prayer, page 148

again…

Yesterday, July 14, Bastille Day, formally, La fête nationale, a grand national day in France, a truck driver plowed into a crowd of celebrants on the Promenade des Anglais in the southeastern city of Nice. As of this moment of my writing, 84 people have died.

This terrorist attack again has been decried by leaders the world o’er and all people of good will; all praying again for the dead, for the survivors, for their families and friends, for ourselves, for an end to all violence and vengeance.

As I read and listen to responses borne by the media, a resonant chord has been struck again, as in the cases of all (indeed, any one) too many terrorist assaults, in these and similar words: “The terrorists want us to live in fear…change the open way of our living…alter our democratic way of being, sacrificing our liberties for the sake of assuring greater security…destabilize our national economies.”

And usually what follows these or like statements is a call again, in related declarations worded variously, to stand fast in love, for it is greater than hate, which can provoke, perhaps inexorably, a reactionary, soul-stilling, soul-stealing revenge; hope, for it is greater than despair, which can collapse into a nihilism-laden inert state of the senselessness and meaninglessness of life; and faith, for it is greater than the reason-blinding certainty of forces and peoples who, believing their conviction or cause is only true, only right, are able and willing to kill anyone who disagrees.

And, here, in “the reason-blinding certainty of forces and peoples who…are able and willing to kill anyone who disagrees”, is, I think, the point of terrorism. I do not believe that all terrorists of whatever group or faction, being human, though savagely human they are, are any more or less monolithic in their purposes than any other group of persons. Hence, I do not and cannot know what the aim of the killing is. I do know that terrorists of whatever group or faction kill people. In every death, the attack, once launched and over, is a success. Again. All else – our living in fear, our retreat from openness, our alteration of our democratic ways, our economies destabilized – is, metaphorically and literally, collateral damage.

That I think, believe a terrorist arises with the sun intent on killing, which will make that day a good day, is chilling to me beyond the telling. Nevertheless, this day I will continue to live with love, hope, and faith. Again.

in terror’s wake, a recommitment to love

Yesterday, suicide bombers attacked the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. The death toll stands near 50; the injured, near 250.

In response to this latest act of terrorism, I…

with tearful gaze, sat in front of the television screen, surfing with swiftly wearied fingers among the news stations, watching, listening to the reports, the numbers of the dead and injured increasing by the moment…

with mind benumbed, tried to imagine the dread of those present during those frantic moments of the assault; pressing myself, as one who believes he dwells in union with all peoples of the earth, to identify with my sisters and brothers, unknown and unnamed, in harm’s way, and, in this, having to confess my self-absorbed guilt for daily dwelling in relative security…

with aching heart, sorrowing, though sensing, fearing the self-pitying impotence of my prayers for the peace of the dead, for the care and comfort of the wounded, for the courage of first responders, for the discerning diligence of law enforcement officials in their investigations, and for the solace and strength for the families and friends of the dead and injured and for all of us who long to luxuriate in the liberty, however illusory, of the peaceful pursuit of our lives.

Laura Guyer is a dear friend. By vocation, she is an international organizational development consultant. It’s what she does and she’s good, no, great at it. Yet this hardly embraces and ne’er can embody who she is. Laura is a citizen of the world; one who seeks and finds common peace with all peoples in a way wholly genuine and gracious. The breadth of her brilliance and depth of her compassion are nonpareil.

Today, on her Facebook page, Laura posted (and I asked and received her permission to share):

I have been in and out of the Istanbul Airport more times than I can count. It could have been me. And, in a way, it was. I am bone weary of sending thoughts, prayers, condolences, tears and heartbreak to brothers and sisters around the world who have been slaughtered by irrational hatred and imperial politics. Enough. Enough. Instead, I am choosing to send love and the tiniest sliver of hope that, in the midst of this god awful drought of human kindness and compassion, we can regain our sense of humanity and learn to love again. To love us all. Irrespective of nationality. Sexual orientation. Political affiliation. And even blatant idiocy. Because that’s pretty much all that we have left to hang hope on. Peace.

As Laura cannot say or write anything that does not swab my moist eyes so to see with renewed clear resolution, stir my benumbed mind with active thought, and salve my aching heart, I wrote in response:

Amen, Laura, amen. I oft – as I trust others do – ask: What can I do in my tiny corner of the world and tinier daily space in which I live and move and have my being to affect for good anything in the face of and response to cruel, indiscriminately death-dealing acts? I have come to believe that my answer rests in the wording of my question. I am called and I MUST (though usually I refrain from employing so heavily morally-freighted a word as “must”, “should”, or “ought”) practice with a moment by moment conscious attention unconditional love; that kindly benevolence that wills and works to do good for all irrespective of whatever the heaven or hell divides us. Doing this does not make me better than or superior to anyone else. What is does do is hold me fast to my commitment as a child of the earth joined in relationship with all – even those who might kill me – until I come to my inexorable end in death, however it manifests itself. Love you, Laura