Fury and Control

We thought that if we were in control, we could make the world a better place, a place that better reflected our wants and values. Instead, we’re no better off than we were before, and we’re probably worse. I see what we’ve done to our world in our attempt to control it, and it infuriates me.

Good Friday
Preached at St. Peter the Fisherman Roman Catholic Church in Eagle River, WI, at the ecumenical Good Friday service organized by the Vacationland Ministerial Association.

John 18:1–19:42

Back in grade school, I hated when we’d break up into teams and play sports. I wasn’t very good at sports—to this day, I’m still not good at sports—and that usually meant I was picked last or close to last. Unless it was something like “who could climb the monkey bars the fastest”, because I was a speed demon on the playground equipment. But basketball, baseball, soccer, ugh. I hated it.

But then, then, I got smart–or at least, I liked to think I got smart. Games have rules, right? And most games need someone to make sure the rules are followed. So I started volunteering to sit out and be the referee, or the umpire, when we’d play team games. As far as I was concerned, this was a win-win. I got to participate without the embarrassment of being picked last, but I also wasn’t really participating, and therefore, couldn’t let my team down. Perfect!

Of course, there was also another reason I liked playing ref or ump. That’s because being ref or ump in a game gives one an enormous amount of power and control in the game. Now I like to think that I was a pretty fair ref, and that even though I didn’t have any real authority I pretended to use it in a just and right way. But there’s no denying that I liked being in that position of control. It was fun. It was really, really fun.

I’m of course not the first human being to be in a position of power and control, and I’m not the first on which it took a hold. From the moment of our creation, we human beings have sought ever higher and higher levels of control. It seems to be wired into our makeup. We always want more control. Whether we’re toddlers demanding that we set our own bed time, children who want to play ref instead of team member, teens in rebellion against their parents, or older church folk clinging to the ways of the past, we live our whole lives looking for more and more control, to shape the world in our image.

And on some level, we’re pretty successful. Life is a constant struggle for control, losing some here, gaining some here. Some are better than others at it.

There’s just one problem, one barrier to our seizing total control. That problem is God.

And that brings us to Good Friday.

More than anything else, Good Friday was an attempt by humankind to take control away from God. You could argue that we already tried that in the garden of Eden. According to that story, we tried to take control away from God by making ourselves better, smarter, more like God. It didn’t work.

So we needed a new plan. And when God was foolish enough to come incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, we were presented with the perfect opportunity to take control. We killed God.

And you know what? We’re still not in control.

We thought that if we were in control, we could make the world a better place, a place that better reflected our wants and values. Instead, we’re no better off than we were before, and we’re probably worse. I see what we’ve done to our world in our attempt to control it, and it infuriates me.

It infuriates me that chemical weapons are still being used as tools of war and terror, and that there are people dumb enough to try defending it or try using it to justify even more killing.

It infuriates me that no one seems capable of doing anything to stop people like Assad and Kim Jong-un, or the human rights violations in Egypt, Russia, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, China, without invasion or bombs.

It infuriates me that my own country drops bombs on the people of Syria and then denies the refugees safe haven, literally condemning them to death, and somehow thinking its doing some great and noble service in the process.

It infuriates me that the most holy region of the world for three major religions has been reduced to a literal war zone because we can’t learn to get along, instead using our sacred writings as billy clubs to beat on our neighbors and justify unleashing our rage and hatred against those who don’t think like we do, because “the Tanakh/Bible/Quran says it’s okay”.

It infuriates me that around the world the LGBTQ+ community is hunted and murdered, and that our own thinking in our churches not only accepts that reality but cultivates it and allows it to continue, because instead of worrying about people being attacked and killed for their sexuality and gender identity, we’re more worried about offending people.

It infuriates me that we laud praises on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then go about our lives as a racist community, a racist country, because our white privilege allows us to ignore the tragedies we leave in our wake and pretend we’re not responsible for fixing them.

It infuriates me that around the world those of us with the most stuff on the whole refuse to help the poor and the needy as Jesus did, without qualification or stipulation, because by telling ourselves that they deserve their position or are responsible for their own condition we can justify doing nothing.

It infuriates me that congregations and churches will sacrifice people, ideas, hopes, dreams, their mission in order to hold onto their precious buildings and “the way they’ve always done things”, as if the building and our less-than-useful European traditions could do the work of God without the people and their dreams.

This is the world we created when we attempted to take control of it away from God? We thought this was a better future than the one God had planned? We thought that we were actually capable of overcoming our sinful natures on our own? We thought we could maintain control?

But we’re not in control.

If we were in control, the death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday would have been just that: his death, the ultimate price we human beings can exact from one another.

If we were in control, there would have been no harrowing of the dead.

If we were in control, the tomb would have never opened. There would be no resurrection. Death would still be in control. Mary Magdalene would not have become the first apostle, sharing the good news of the risen Christ with the other disciples. God’s unconditional love and willingness to be sacrificed on the altar of hate in order to end the cycle of hate and broken promises that had characterized God’s relationship with humanity would never have been proved.

But we aren’t in control. We never have been, we never will be, and if our current and past attempts at remaking the world in our own image are any indicator, we never should be. We have always been slaves to a control that is not our own.

Once, that was Sin and Death, cruel masters of our own making that turned on us and shackled us. But today, today is Good Friday.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that we are not in control.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that, though we continue to act as though Sin and Death still rule over us, God reclaimed us, banishing the hold Sin and Death had over us, reaffirming our place as beloved, if unruly and rebellious, children of God.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, is in control, and that one day, our seemingly-endless struggle against that control will cease, that the reign of God that has already broken into the world will come to completion.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that we tried to take control from God, and we lost.

We are still a world in rebellion; we don’t like to lose. We still inflict hardship and calamity and pain and suffering and torture and death on each other in our attempt to maintain what little control we might have. But thanks be to God that our sins are not the final word.

Thanks be to God that our power is fleeting.

Thanks be to God that our revolution did not sever our relationship with God, but rather provided God the perfect opportunity to re-imagine, restore, renew, and redeem that relationship.

Thanks be to God for Good Friday.

Featured Image: “Cross at ‘Dawn'” by *Robert* is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Sacred Space and Hospitality

Duke Chapel was in the news this past week, and I decided to share my thoughts on the whole situation. What do you think?

Last week, the Duke University administration approved using the Duke Chapel bell tower to broadcast the Muslim adhan, or call-to-prayer, before the weekly jummah prayer service. Two days later, the administration reversed its decision in light of heavy criticism and “serious and credible concerns about safety and security”. Instead, the adhan was sung outside the chapel before those who wished to participate in the jummah headed to the chapel basement.

News outlets picked up the story and sensationalized it. High-profile speakers like Franklin Graham encouraged donors to pull their support from Duke University as a sort of sanction against the administration. It is implied that threats were made against the campus and students.

The question is this: is it okay for a Muslim call-to-prayer to be broadcast from a Christian chapel bell tower? The complaint seems to be that, because it is a Christian chapel, it is inappropriate. It is a Christian building meant for Christian use.

But, consider this. Muslims have prayed in the chapel basement for years. And while Franklin Graham may be referring to this when he says that the chapel has probably already been “desecrated”, it doesn’t change the fact that other religions have been using the chapel building for worship long before now. Where was the outcry then? Why is the call-to-prayer in the tower more offensive than Muslims worshiping in the chapel building?

Some claim it is offensive to have such a public display of Islam while Muslim extremists throughout the world are committing violence against Christians. To this I say, hogwash. If the call-to-prayer is an offensive reminder of the actions of extremists, then so too is the beautiful Duke Chapel carillon, and every Christian bell tower that “forces” passersby to listen to Christian hymns, a reminder of the centuries of violence by Christians that continues to the present day. Then there’s the irony of those who threatened violence and harm to the school and students if the bell tower was used in this way. Christianity has a long, bloody history and present of violence and terrorism that, no, is not behind us.

Some claim that allowing the adhan to be broadcast from the bell tower is another example of Christianity being pushed out of the public eye and replaced. A quick look at the Duke Chapel worship schedule and religious life pages would say otherwise. Christian worship is held every day at Duke, and the vast majority of official religious groups on campus are Christian (the chapel schedule for Friday doesn’t even include the weekly Muslim jummah). Our country is overwhelmingly supportive of Christianity to the exclusion of other religions. We occupy more space in society than is healthy for a country that claims religious freedom as one of its core tenets.

In my mind, the question is not about sacred space and desecration. Is God’s blessing and holiness so weak that broadcasting the adhan a few minutes each week from a building already used for Muslim worship would be enough to drive God’s spirit from the ground? Hopefully not! If so, every sinner (i.e., every last human being) that walks through the doors of the chapel and does not immediately receive forgiveness has long since driven God out with their unholiness and the question is a moot point. I have more faith in the power and strength of God’s presence than that.

Instead, the question is about hospitality. Christianity and the sacredness of God are firmly entrenched at Duke Chapel. Though the university is not a university of the United Methodist Church, it still claims strong ties to that church. If Christianity is under attack at Duke, it is from secular society, not Islam. Christians at Duke University have little to fear from their Muslim brothers and sisters.

But even in the United States, where Christianity is not under attack, we remember that the history of our faith includes long periods of persecution. We remember that, in other places around the world, Christians do live under the threat of violence from their neighbors–even from their Muslim neighbors. And we remember that, in those times, non-Christians, including Muslims, protected and sheltered us because it was the right thing to do.

Allowing the adhan to be broadcast from the Duke Chapel bell tower is not on the same heroic level as Christians protecting Muslims in Egypt or Muslims guarding churches in Kenya. But it would still be a gesture of hospitality and welcome from one group of God-fearers to another. The chapel, and almost every congregation and church I know of, is used for more than Christian worship because Christians all over the world recognize that welcoming the stranger is part of our calling as disciples of Christ.

Perhaps one day, we will finally see past the extremes of all faiths and remember that we human beings are not so different after all.

Featured Image: “In an all blue world, the beginning” by Corey Butler is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Is it right for you to be angry?

I wrote and performed this piece as part of Trinity Lutheran Seminary‘s Second Annual Summer Seminary Sampler Gospel Slam. Gospel Slam is based on poetry slams. TLS set the model for doing poetry slams in partnership with the Academy of Preachers, an ecumenical organization that lifts up and encourages young preachers. Each performance this year had to based around a Biblical question. My question this month was “Is it right for you to be angry?” from Jonah 4:4.

I’ve never particularly liked our corporate confession and forgiveness. It’s rather sterile, easy, and doesn’t address the fact that, while we are sinners ourselves, we also bear the pain of having been sinned against. It is important to recognize that pain.

The lament, an impassioned cry of grief and anguish, is a notable and powerful form of prayer found in many places in the Hebrew Scriptures. It seemed an appropriate way to address that pain. The idea here, then, was to have a confession and forgiveness interrupted by the thoughts of someone in pain.

—————————————

L: Blessed be the holy Trinity, + one God,
who forgives all our sin,
whose mercy endures forever.
P: Amen

L: Gracious God,
P: have mercy on us. We confess that we have turned from you and given ourselves into the power of sin. We are truly sorry and humbly repent. In your compassion, forgive us our sins…

No, wait, this is ridiculous.
Gracious God? Whose mercy endures forever? In your compassion?
What are you trying to pull?
Do you hear us? Do you not recognize how stupid we sound?
You must be laughing at us, at me.

Do we please you when we play the prodigal part?
Are we entertaining enough when we act all humble?
It must be like watching a car crash on the highway.
You know it’s awful, but by gosh, you just have to slow down and take a little peek.

I mean, you can’t take all of this seriously.
We sure as heck don’t.
Did I call that guy some unpleasant names when he almost ran me over on College and Main? You bet I did.
Did he deserve it? You bet he did.
Should I have done it? No.
Will I do it again? Absolutely.
It’s probably not the only bad thing I did this past week, and it won’t be the last.
I’ll be here next week with the same old story,
How I’ll never do it again, yadda yadda yadda.
Will you believe me then? You’d be a fool. I don’t even believe me.

But yes, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I called him a bad name. I said the words again. All better?
Are you happy? Am I back in your favor?
That was easy.
I mean, what would have happened if I’d done something really bad, like, oh,
Killed a baby because his dad cheated on his wife.
Or made a whole country sick because I didn’t like the way the census went,
Or murdered a husband and wife when they didn’t pay up,
Or forced a rape victim to marry her attacker, as if I was being some benevolent overseer looking out for her worth and dignity.
Now, gee, who does that sound like. Can you guess?
Sounds like a brat to me.

So excuse me if I don’t buy this whole wretched person thing you’re feeding me.
Am I perfect? Hell no.
But I don’t know, compared to you, well, I look like a saint.

Here I am again anyway, right on time, asking for forgiveness.
But when was the last time you asked for some forgiveness?
Did the Canaanites get a “sorry” after you told your people to butcher them?
Did the innocent Egyptians who died from plagues get any penance from you?
You told Job to shut up and take it when you let him suffer just to win a bet, and while you gave him all his stuff back and a new family (how “gracious” of you), I don’t remember hearing an apology.
And every time you lose your temper, someone else dies, usually some few thousand, without even a hint of remorse from you.
Should I keep going?

So don’t you sit there and tell me I’m a horrible person because I thought bad thoughts or lied about how I really think about some people, or how you’ll only accept me if I “humbly repent.” You first.

You’re Lord of the universe, an expanse so great our math can barely estimate it,
And you’re pissed at me for cussing?
Get some perspective.
If me getting angry at someone and venting to a friend is enough to give you a wedgie and send me to “hell”, then it’s time to grow up, God. I’m 27 and I don’t have those kinds of tantrums anymore–what’s your excuse?

Nothing to say, God? Typical. I must not be worth a reply.
Are you really so disconnected from our lives that you can’t understand why I’m so angry? It is right for me to be angry.
I grew up in a school full of people who everyday told me I wasn’t worth anything.
I’m always the outcast, the stranger, one of the very people who need you the most, rejected by our family and friends who think they should be more important.
We’re lost and confused, drifting from place to place, looking to you for some sort of relief because we’re hurt.
But you don’t seem to care about that. You’d rather stroke your own ego and have us humiliate ourselves in front of you, like we weren’t worth the earth we are made of.
This may be a game to you, but it isn’t to us, and it isn’t to me.
Damnit, God, I NEED YOU!!

I’m clearly not strong enough to do this on my own.
You adopted me, and you’re supposed to take care of me.
I want this to work because even when you’re a real jerk, I LOVE YOU.

There, I said it. Is that what you wanted to hear?
More magic words.
Can we go home now?
Can we stop being angry?
I played your game, even though you don’t follow the rules and I’ll never win.
You win, God. You win, like you always do.

I don’t hate you, God. But if this is what it takes to get your attention, to make you see what you’re doing to me, then I’d do it again, and again, and again.
I know you want things to turn out a certain way, and maybe that “plan” is more important than me. But I won’t let you forget about me. I’m not losing you, too.

I’m sick of the silent treatment. Speak up, God!
I’m sick of my brothers and sisters, who claim to have your ear, telling me I’m not good enough for you. That I haven’t earned your love. Is it true?
You’re either gracious and merciful, or you’re not.
Or maybe you are gracious and merciful to some of your kids, and not others.
But hey, you won’t speak up one way or the other, so who’s to know?

Maybe it’s my fault that we don’t get along, maybe it’s your fault, maybe it’s both of our faults.
But I’m still mad at you.

I’m mad because you make me feel like crap instead of accepting me as I am.
It’s not like I’m not trying–you know better than that.
I try every day to be like my oldest brother, your favorite.
But I’m not him, and it’s not fair that your love for me should be based on how much I’m like him.
Can’t I just be me?

I’m not suggesting any deals, any tit-for-tat. I can’t bargain anyway. I suck at it.
Truthfully, I’m not sure what I’m suggesting.
All I know is that you loved us even when we were dead in sin and made us alive together in Christ, so long ago.
But what about now? Does it still matter? Do I still matter?
I know I’m not a galaxy, or a star, or a planet, or a continent, or a mountain, or a tree.
I’m not very big, or mighty, or powerful, or majestic, or beautiful.
All I am is me.

I’m sorry if that’s not enough. And if that makes you angry, well, then it is right for you to be angry.
But I hope it doesn’t.
I hope that you’ll continue to love me no matter what I do.
I do watch what I say and do, and there are times when I’m ashamed of myself–I’m not naive. I screw up. I have plenty of my own guilt.
But I hope it doesn’t mean that I’m kicked out of the family.
I have my own hurts, too. I need to hear, “I’m sorry,” too.
You seem to care about what I do to others, but what about what they do to me?

I don’t want much. I don’t need much.
Really, just let me know that you love me from time to time.
I know you do, but it’s nice to hear and feel once in awhile.
It gets lonely over here when you don’t come around,
When you don’t talk to us anymore. We miss you, God. I miss you.

I’m sorry for yelling at you. But it needed to be said.
I miss the gracious God, the merciful God, the compassionate God, the God of my ancestors.
If you need time to get over your anger, then I’ll have to wait.
I’ll keep coming by.
I’ll keep doing my best to make you proud, even though I hope you already are.
You used to be, and I’m just naive enough to believe that some things never change.
I don’t really have a right to be angry, I guess.
I trust you–please trust me.

L: God, who is rich in mercy, loved us even when we were dead to sin, and made us alive together with Christ. By grace we have been saved, from ourselves and from each other. In the name of +Jesus Christ, our sins and their’s are forgiven. Almighty God strengthen us with power through the Holy Spirit, that Christ may live in our hearts through faith.
P: Amen.