Earth once pushed this tree toward the sky
Uprooted, tree becomes root for another
The grounded, ungrounded, becomes ground
One day a tree falls and becomes soil for new life
A witness to renewal and hope
Proof of connection between the old and the new
I live in a forest of felled trees
Generations of lost loves and found loves
The lost is the foundation for the found
Making it possible for love to grow again
Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, my congregation had a conversation about violence. Not the violence of the Passion story, but the violence that had terrorized our city for almost a month. The Austin Package Bomber. At the time the conversation was planned, the source of the terror was still unknown. By the time we met, the perpetrator had been identified and was dead. There was a lot of compassion in the room, and a palpable struggle to understand why it all happened.
In the time between terror and relief, there had been lots of discussion locally and nationally about how to characterize the crime and the criminal. We’ve had lots of practice and a formula has emerged – white males who commit mass murder are mentally ill lone wolves; men and women of color who commit mass murder are terrorists. This is a distinction that is obviously racist and xenophobic, problematic in just about every way I can think of.
The way we distinguish between mass murderers is an ongoing conversation. During Holy Week, I think about the way we characterize all of them, not just distinguish between them. It seems important to label them as Other. Whether they are ill or misguided or not-from-here the key point seems to be that they are not us.
On Palm Sunday and again today, Good Friday, we hear the account of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, torture, and execution. Throughout the story, it is clear that the perpetrators of those acts are not “other.” They are friends, good citizens, religious officials, ordinary folk. They are us.
“They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’”
They are us.
And that is the way I think about the perpetrators of mass murder in our communities today. As troubled or misguided as they may be, as much as I can say I’d never commit such acts – it is clear to me that they are us. They come from our communities. They come from families and congregations and schools. They are either living out or reacting against their perception of our social and political values, not acting outside them altogether. There is no holding them accountable until we hold ourselves accountable, as well. Not just as individuals – not many people commit those acts – but as communities, cities, nations.
As we struggle to understand what happened, our hope to prevent the next awful act is also not Other. It is within our power and within our ability to organize our common life in a way that is less adversarial, more collaborative. Less individualistic, more mutual. Less us-versus-them, more all of us together.
I’d love to know what hope you see for creating safer communities in a way that honors the fact that we ARE communities. All of us together.
A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Port Aransas with family for a few days. It was the first time any of us had been there since Hurricane Harvey had passed over this small beach town. On every road we saw restoration and destruction side-by-side. The hurricane was in the far recesses of my memory, but there it was still immediate. Outside each rebuilt business, a pile of debris. Next to each repainted home, another still missing a roof.
One thing was unchanged about Port Aransas: the palm trees. I learned long ago, that these plants thrive along the coast in part because of they way they survive storms. When the winds whip, most rigid structures shatter. Palms bend.
Then they stand again.
Today is Palm Sunday. I’ve written about this day before, and about the palm as an emblem of it’s meaning for Christians. (You can read it here.) Seeing those survivor palm trees presented me with a new twist. What does it mean that the sign of hospitality laid down for Jesus is from a plant that withstands such force, that springs back from destruction?
This time of year, there are symbols of resurrection all around. When Christians observe the resurrection of the Christ, we use springtime images to help us grasp it’s meaning – eggs, butterflies, lilies. Seeds that die in the earth and rise through the soil. Among these symbols rises the palm. I’ve now seen it standing as a witness to the resurrection of a community. For those of us who have experienced or are still going through personal storms, it is encouraging to imagine the possibility of surviving. It has been done before. The one greeted with palms and who faced destruction, stands again with us and for us.
One Mary talked quietly to herself, shuffled back and forth with coffee. She had a small backpack and two large garbage bags full of clothing and blankets.
Another Mary has diabetes and made her way around in a wheelchair. She has open sores on her hands and she wants to die. But she came in from the cold to sleep here, so there is still some survival left in her.
There were two quiet trans-Marys eating breakfast and and complaining bitterly about having to go back outside. It could have been because of the cold weather or the cold treatment out there. Three layers of sweaters can only protect you from so much.
A fifth Mary thanked everyone for her bed and her food. She was helpful and cheerful…until she was not. Something set off a memory and she traveled down an angry tangent while packing her belongings. I’ve heard her mention her children before, she’s lost custody and is trying, trying, trying to see them again.
The last Mary was quiet. Hardly a peep. Silently slept, silently ate, silently packed. Silent night. Was it a holy night?
This stable was shelter for 6 Marys and no children. But all of them are somebody’s child.
There is a bewildering confusion plaguing my social media and news streams. It’s a perplexity of mistaken ideas about what constitutes history, legacy, and the difference between a person and a cause. In short, there seem to be a lot of people – far too many people – who cannot tell the difference between a human being and a statue.
As a public service, I will attempt to clarify this issue, explain the difference between a person and a public monument. The example of Robert E. Lee is timely – let’s take a look at this historical person who is also depicted in statues. Now, Robert E. lee was a real person who lived and died. Like all human beings he had characteristics that were both worthy and unworthy, lovable and disgraceful. I am sure he loved his children. He also owned human beings as property, like many other people in his time and place.
There are statues of Robert E. Lee throughout the United States, not just in the South. They depict the man, but (and this is a key point) they are NOT the man. These statues are public monuments placed in carefully selected sites to make a public statement. The purpose of statues of Robert E. Lee is to honor and represent not merely the individual portrayed, it is to hold up the cause and values for which that person stood.
A statue of Robert E. Lee is a public monument to the cause in which he was a leader - the Confederate States of America – and the values of that cause, two of which are separation from the United States of America and protection of the institution of slavery. In other words, public monuments to the Confederacy honor treason and racism.
This point seems achingly obvious to most people, but completely opaque to far too many. “The statues are historical markers,” they claim, “if we don’t have them we will forget our history.” Or, “if we get rid of Lee statues because he owned slaves where will it end?! Will we have to tear down statues of all slaveholders?”
If you understand a public monument as a tribute to a cause and to shared values, these questions are irrelevant. For clarity, look to the purpose that public monuments serve in the life of a community or nation. For instance, most Confederate monuments were erected well after the Civil War and many in locations and at points in time that reinforced racist ideology. For instance, the statue of Lee in Lexington, Ky is located in a former slave auction site. The location of the statue sends a clear message to the community that the Confederate cause has more value than the lives bought and sold there.
When New Orleans began removing public monuments to the Confederacy, Mayor Landrieu give an succinct and eloquent explanation of why it was the right and patriotic thing to do. About the statues he said,
“They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for,” he said. “They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.”
So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. Matt. 27: 59-61
There is a wall in the garden at my church that has dozens of new tombs. Outside in the garden, modern-day Marys visit the tombs where their loved ones rest. There is a clear demarcation between the living on one side of the wall, the dead on the other. These are tiny versions of the tomb in which Jesus was laid, each with a little door instead of stones to close them.
There is a chance that we don’t know what goes on behind those little doors, or what went on behind the great stone that enclosed Jesus’ body. The Collect for Holy Saturday says that on this day Jesus observed a Sabbath rest. While most Sabbaths begin with a convivial family meal, this one seems lonely, dark, and quiet.
When I first learned about this type of burial place, a columbarium, I was fascinated by the name. It comes from the Latin word columba, which means dove or pigeon. So this place where we lay our loved ones is a nesting place, not just a resting place. I loved imagining the remains of a loved one as one of those birds, symbols of spirit.
Recently, I was at a neighbor’s house to pick up my daughter. When no one answered the front door, I walked to the back and came upon a dovecote. A columbarium full of columbas.
It was as unlike the columbarium at my church as you could imagine. The birds were on one side, I on the other, but they were not still and silent at all. They were not isolated in niches with doors. These birds were cooing and flying, socializing and preening.
Seeing those birds, those lively spirits, allowed me to think of a columbarium – and indeed of Jesus’ tomb – in a different way. I am still like those Marys on the living side of the wall, yet behind the stone or the little doors I can now imagine there is something going on. It isn’t dead space, it isn’t dead time.
Today, we associate a columbarium with death, but it also means dovecote. It is a place where doves and pigeons, symbols of spirit, can rest. Resting is not the same as doing nothing! The birds in my neighbor’s columbarium are not still. They are constantly on the move and socializing. These birds are having continual Sabbath on their side of the wall.
This is what I like to think happens behind the closed doors of the columbarium niches and behind the stone covering Jesus’ tomb. The body rests and the soul finds its kin. While we gather and prepare on one side of the wall, they gather and commune on the other. It is what I imagine Jesus’ Sabbath after Good Friday might have been like, resting from the week that passed and resting for the resurrection to come.
I have been stewing over an idea for a very long time. It is an image that has been building over the years. The past few days has brought it to the surface again.
I have to start by saying that images from nature and concepts from science have always been powerful sources of metaphor for me. In addition to being intrinsically wonderful and true all by themselves, they have always contained, at least for me, seeds of insight about creation, human nature, and the divine. Sometimes even the most mundane or ridiculous images…well read for yourself.
A little over 20 years ago, a friend wondered aloud if perhaps gravity was love, or love was gravity. What would that mean? Do heavier objects have more love? Does weight – the pull between two objects – indicate more love? Do atoms have less love than Jupiter and Saturn? It was a fun thought experiment for non-scientists and we took it to extremes. There was something more to it for me, though, just the tiniest idea that love might be the invisible force between things. The thing you can’t see, but which causes everything you see to happen.
Then, more recently – but not too – I was with my son at a summer camp. All week, the boys had been studying space exploration and using those ideas as themes for all their activities. As a volunteer for his group of campers, I headed over to a slip-and-slide and nearly tripped over a basketball labeled SUN. As the boys splashed, I stepped back and saw something about 12 yards away – a stick with a white card on it. When I got closer, I saw a miniscule poppy seed and the word MERCURY. I was in the middle of a scale model of the Solar System.
Another 10 yards away was VENUS, and EARTH 10 yards past that. Each no bigger than the head of a pin. A tiny speck 3 inches from EARTH was the MOON. Sixteen yards from EARTH was MARS, then an asteroid belt.
The scouts were ready for another activity and so we walked through the camp. It was another half hour before I saw a small ball labeled JUPITER. It was more than a football field away from EARTH. As the day progressed, I saw SATURN and URANUS but there was no room for the rest – we were at the edge of the property. URANUS was a third of a mile from the basketball sun and the size of a large marble. This model solar system would not have fit inside a university football stadium.
Standing there in the camp, it was hard to imagine that the basketball more than two football fields away could have an effect on the specks and marbles I had passed. I couldn’t even see the sun at the end point. I began to wonder how things that are so far apart – and some of them nearly invisible – could be related to each other. How could they hang together? And yet they did.
It was at this point in the Solar System stroll that the long-ago conversation about gravity surfaced – the invisible force keeping planets in their orbits, causing tides to rise and fall, and keeping my feet on the ground. For someone like me who believes God is love, the idea of this invisible force is analogous to love, the force that holds everything together…well that seems to be the kind of thing so utterly true it could only be expressed through metaphor. It is the only way I have of grasping the Divine. Or Love.
I don’t know about you, but a lot of the time, I feel like I am as small as the tiny seed representing MERCURY. (Sometimes as small as an asteroid.) There are times I feel as isolated and distant as JUPITER. How can anything I do or say affect those other beings out there? How does any of it matter? In real life, all the space between the planets and the sun looks empty, but it isn’t. Just like the space between people, between nations, between even the electrons in atoms – what looks empty is filled with force. The force of words and actions, the force of compassion, of shared vision, of shared orientation around…a sun? A source of light.
Shared humanity and created-ness is a force of connection. For humans, a lack of love – of gravity – sends us spinning off into darkness. But knowing that you are connected, however invisibly, to those other parts of creation can be enough to help you act on that connection, to honor the pull of gravity and love.