Resurrections

The other day, I posted a photo on Facebook of a sage bush that is blooming in my front yard. These shrubs are usually pale green, but when it rains a lot (as it has in Texas this Spring and Summer) they blossom with purple flowers. A friend saw the photo and commented that sages are a true resurrection plant. It made me see them in a new way.

In truth, the sages here don’t ever seem to die. They are hearty and drought-resistant. But when it rains, they take on a whole new look and liveliness. Those purple flowers seem to have been waiting for the right circumstances to bring them out. As Summer progresses, the flowers will drop, but the sage will flower again. That is what they do.

In my faith tradition, resurrection is a central belief, yet even those who don’t believe the dead literally come back to life find hope in the theme of resurrection. It isn’t the passing of one soul through many lives – that is reincarnation – but the renewal of one single life or even of a community. In a way, resurrection can be seen as a person or community becoming most fully themselves. That’s why the symbols of resurrection are things like butterflies and eggs and sage bushes – living beings that undergo a transformation but retain the same essence; they stay what they have always been, only better. For some of us, the theme of resurrection is what gives us hope when we face all kinds of small “deaths,” like church attendance going down or changes in leadership. Or bigger “deaths” like racism or the daily indignities of poverty.

Resurrection is hope, transformation, and renewal.

As I work with patients and families at the hospital this summer, the image of my “resurrection” sage is a helpful one. People, too, blossom when the circumstances allow. Many times, those circumstances might be a death or a difficult transition. Sometimes, as I sit with people experiencing grief and pain, they begin to flower with stories, memories, plans, and gratitude. I’ve experienced it at similar times in my own family. In the midst of grief, we’ve recalled old family jokes, planned favorite meals, reached out to disconnected loved ones. And so it is with the families I companion this summer. Thanks to my friend’s comment, I’ll be looking for these resurrection moments every chance I get.

Light and Love

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every Sunday, I light two candles: one for people on my prayer list and one for peace. The prayers are always specific, but some days they are lifted up from more places than just my heart. This was one of those days – the events of this week seemed to rise up before many of us at once, begging for light.

Like most people I know, this week has been one of grief and anger as we learned about the murder of nine African American women and men in their church. As we learned that they were murdered in an act of racist domestic terrorism. As we realized that, although this slaughter was unimaginably horrible, it was not surprising. Because we’ve seen so much of it lately – literally seen it captured on video and widely broadcast.

There is a lot I could say about what happened in Charleston – but there are other people saying it so well whose words I’ve been sharing on social media. (And I highly recommend you check them out.) What I can add is how this event was framed for me this morning. Because after I lit my candles and hoped those flames were bringing a tiny bit of light to the darkness in the world, we had a baptism in my congregation. After reflecting on the hatred we confront in the world and how faith calls us to respond, a joyful, dancing girl took vows to join in the work of helping light overcome darkness and love overcome hate. Together, a community  vowed with her to resist evil, love our neighbors as ourselves, strive for justice and peace, respect the dignity of every human being.

As dismal as this week (and this year and this decade) has been, it is nice to be reminded that we have reason for hope. Dismantling racism – or any kind of evil – takes a team and today a very young girl joined that team. I am betting she was joined by many others as people gathered in congregations around the country to remember the victims in Charleston. In fact, I am betting the team to confront evil got bigger where people gathered in homes and community centers and on street corners to find their roles in peace and justice-making.

On days when hope seems distant and optimism feels false, it might be a candle or a splash of water or a young child reminding us that evil has not won. It might be an unexpected ally, shared bread, or the words of a song. Look for them, these reminders of hope all around us. Darkness cannot drive out darkness and hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only light and love can do that.  

Unity

My friend Irit just returned from her annual trip to visit family in Israel. The first indication for her that this visit would be different (other than hourly updates of missile strikes and counter-strikes) was having three seats to herself on the flight over. The day after she arrived, US airlines stopped flying to Tel Aviv altogether.

It was a three-week visit that was terrifying, disheartening, stressful, frustrating, and also illuminating in the way that going home can be when you have been away for a long time. Hearing her talk about the experience has been both mystifying for me (never been near war or real danger of any kind) and enthralling (how do people adjust to that life? or do they?) I’ve come away with some (probably naive) insights that she’s been gracious enough to let me share. (Note: All these thoughts are mine, and so are all the errors contained herein.)

Irit was born and grew up in Israel. She served in the army, as all Israelis do, and lived through the conflicts in 1956, 1967, 1969, 1973…up to the first Gulf War in 1991. About 12 years ago, she moved to the US for good. Even though she was apprehensive about going to Israel this summer, her daughter assured her, “Mom, don’t worry. We are going about our everyday life. It’ll be fine.” But, it turns out if you have not been living in a war zone for over a decade, you start to notice things that used to be taken for granted. Things like, every residence is required by law to have a safe room. Like shrill warning sirens. Like having to make safety plans as you walk your granddaughter to the playground or run errands. Like having your Shabbat dinner interrupted by a bomb threat and then watching your family go right back to eating as if nothing unusual had happened.

My friend has plenty of insights about the violence. In addition to talking about the stresses for her family and those on the Israeli side, she has great compassion for Palestinians crowded into the 141 square miles of Gaza with virtually no safe rooms and even less hope. How can you make peace, she observed, with people who have no hope? And there was plenty of disdain for political leaders on all sides (because there are more than two).

But what made the biggest impression on me, the outsider, was this: my friend who grew up in war has now become accustomed to peace. Yes, she is frustrated that we in the US don’t feel the impact of the wars to which we contribute. (Seriously, how long can we keep sending dollars and weapons and expect to keep shopping away as if nothing is wrong in the world?) But it really struck me how shocking it was for her to return to a way of life that used to be normal for her. From my easy chair, I see too many stories on the news about people who can never leave war – the battles themselves won’t stop or the governments that follow are corrupt or a different enemy appears. But…

It is possible to get used to peace.

Shortly after Irit returned I was working on a sermon and saw that Psalm 133 was in the lectionary for that week. It is the Psalm for my alma mater – Yea Sewanee! – and I’ve said and sung it many times. The words struck me in a new way, especially when Irit noted that the conflict in the Middle East is between cousins. The cultures, languages, and people of that region are related.

 Oh how good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.

Living together in unity is good. Not winning. Not power. Living together. In unity. Is good.

There are so many aspects of Irit’s experience that deserve reflection; it is a very complex situation. But just for now, I am focusing on this: it is possible to get used to peace. And the second related idea: getting used to peace is good. There are people trying hard to do this every day. What would make it possible for more to do it in their homes, neighborhoods, cities, and nations?

What do you think?

The Cost of Discipleship in 21st Century America

There has been a political movement lately claiming to protect religious freedom by allowing people of particular faith traditions to withhold professional, secular services from members of the public if doing so would offend their religious sensibilities. By and large, these efforts are driven by conservative Christians who are trying to maintain an ability to keep their secular professional status quo by making members of the public seek services or employment elsewhere. For instance, some employers want to be exempted from providing adequate health care coverage for employees because some of the covered medical services, such as birth control and abortion, offend them.  Bakers in Arizona and Kansas are lobbying to keep their businesses in tact without having to serve homosexual couples because they oppose marriage equality.

In the halls of government and on the Internet, these issues are being debated as a conflict between freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination. One way or the other, the courts will settle the issues and articulate an interpretation of the Constitutions – US and states –that allow all of us to move forward with a somewhat more settled common expectation of what is acceptable and what is not.

As a person of faith, however, my concern is not for the legal ramifications of this struggle, but for the spiritual ones. What impact will it have on our faith communities if we expect the law not only to protect our freedom of religion, but also to have others pay the price for us to exercise it

In 1937, Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship, which describes the dangers of “cheap grace,” or the situation in which the church promises believers grace, forgiveness, and sacraments without requiring anything from them. No repentance or discipline or obedience. No discipleship. The epitome of this phenomenon was the sale of indulgencies in Medieval Europe. An indulgence was an exemption from punishment/penance for some types of sin and in late Medieval Europe they could be bought by the wealthy as a type of “sin insurance” or extracted by greedy pardoners or rulers to pay for projects. (Indulgences are not my area of expertise, so pardon me if this definition is a little off. Pun intended.) But Bonheoffer also saw signs of cheap grace in his own day – especially among churches that had been taken over by Nazi sympathizers and conflated political and religious loyalty.

We can see similar examples of cheap grace in our own day. But now, instead of paying for grace out of their own pockets, we see people expecting others to pay that price for them. It is not enough for them to have a personal religious conviction against gay marriage or birth control or a particular government program, they want to ask their customers or patients or other taxpayers to pay the price so that these religious believers don’t have to alter their lives in any way.

Money…or grace?

Now, as a Christian, I can only speak for my own faith tradition, but I have scoured the Bible and can find no instance in which Jesus promised his followers they’d get to keep their job or keep all their money as a benefit of discipleship. In fact, his first followers actually gave up their jobs to follow him. And he famously told a rich man he’d have to give up all he had to gain eternal life. We can argue about how the Constitution balances your right to pursue happiness with your freedom of religion, but there is no argument about how Jesus saw that balance. Discipleship is costly; you will have to give up everything. No one else can take that obligation for you; you must do it yourself.

There have been people throughout the ages who have made these costly sacrifices to honor their faith. Some who object to war on religious grounds will not only avoid military service, but earn low wages to avoid paying taxes that go to the military. People who believe they are obligated to strictly observe the Sabbath don’t ask the NFL to re-schedule games, they simply do not play college or professional sports.

If you are not willing to pay the price of discipleship yourself, it is hypocritical to ask others to make that sacrifice for you – especially since you would almost always be asking it of someone who does not share your particular religious conviction. I am willing to believe that there are people of good will who oppose marriage equality, but Jesus never promised them they’d get to express that belief in a bakery or a photography studio. I know people who don’t think reproductive health coverage should be mandated for businesses, but denying that care is asking others to take the stand for you.

Grace is free – there is nothing you can do to earn it  – but it is not cheap. You can’t buy it and you certainly can’t rack up rewards by charging your beliefs to someone else’s credit card. It requires your own personal effort and sacrifice. Whatever the courts and legislatures decide, the church is in a terrible place if Christians think that the highest demand of their faith is holding others accountable.