Sermon: When There’s No Comfort

I had the great honor of preaching today at Glencliff Presbyterian Church.  The texts were Lamentations 1:11-22 and John 11:33-37.  Here’s what I said, more or less…

A few weeks ago, my husband Will, my baby, and I all got a cold at the same time. I sent Will on an emergency Kleenex run to Wal-Mart, and he brought back a three-pack of boxes, which turned out to be just barely enough to go ‘round. The three boxes were wrapped in plastic coating that read, charmingly, “Hard Times Call for a Soft Touch.”

And that got me thinking. I’ve noticed a strange thing about many people. The second you start crying, they press a Kleenex box into your hands. I’m sure they have the best intentions. They want to spare you the embarrassment of having actual tears drop and potentially running your mascara while also offering you the pretense that you’re not actually crying.

Now, me, I’m not a Kleenex girl. The only reason Kleenexes enter the picture when I’m crying is if my nose gets involved, because nothing is less cute than crying that causes leakage from all facial orifices at the same time. And well-intentioned as it is, when a spectator hands me a Kleenex box, I just want to shove it right back to them.

Here’s my theory. Most of the time, when somebody’s crying, they’re past the point when Kleenexes are really helpful. No, we press Kleenexes into the hands of our weeping neighbors because tears make us uncomfortable.

Our discomfort with tears helps explain why the book of Lamentations doesn’t show up much in church. Sometimes we read it a little bit on Good Friday. But many people primarily encounter Lamentations in the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” which sums up the most hopeful verses of the book. That hymn is one of my favorites, but there’s yet more to Lamentations that we need to explore. In the first chapter of Lamentations, the poet repeats some variation of the phrase “there is no comforter” several times. There are situations in life when comfort is unthinkable in the short-term. Sometimes being inconsolable is the appropriate response to tragedy. These are the moments when we need to lament.

I can’t choose just one example. 58 people die of gunshot wounds at a Las Vegas music festival and around 500 more are wounded. Two teenagers lose their mother in a church shooting in our own backyard. Rallies in Charlottesville celebrate white supremacy. And in our individual lives, deadly disease, pregnancy loss, divorce, bereavement, or other personal tragedy strike each one of us at some point. In those moments, a comforter is far from us.

But sometimes we simply don’t know how to lament, and that’s not really our fault. Our predecessors haven’t done a great job teaching us how. For instance, in classical Athens, the great statesman Solon outlawed the practice of lament in the city. That classical suspicion of lament carried over into Christian culture. Basil of Caesarea, one of the great fathers of the Church, called lament “an indecency practiced among the ungodly.” Our own John Calvin warned against “men being carried away into excesses in their mourning, as frequently happens.” And get this—John Chrysostom, another church father, called lament “this disease of women.” Not a vote of confidence.

Even though many of our forbearers were skeptical of the concept, Lamentations still made its way into our canon. Lamentations is a book of the bible that consists of 5 chapters, each one of which is a poem. These poems are responses to Jerusalem’s sacking by the Babylonian empire in the 6th century BCE. When the Babylonians came to Jerusalem, they not only took over the city, but they also destroyed the temple of God. That was the temple that Solomon had built during better times in the Israelite monarchy. And to make things even worse, the Babylonians took many people from Judah into exile. There had never been such a great national catastrophe before.

That’s why the first line of Lamentations is just a single word: “How?” Lamentations wrestles with the question of how God could let the destruction happen, and of how people are supposed to piece their lives back together. Large sections of the first two chapters of Lamentations, including the part we just read, are put in the mouth of a woman named Zion. She is the personification of the city of Jerusalem. Zion represents both the physical city of Jerusalem that had recently been destroyed and its people, who had been forced into exile. She’s portrayed as a bereaved mother, whose children have died from starvation or violence, and as a survivor of sexual assault, who experienced the Babylonian invasion as a violation of her own body.

Zion is determined to make God understand exactly how catastrophe has shattered her. From Zion’s perspective, God is at fault for the death of her children and the pain she is experiencing. And that’s why Lamentations fascinates me. Even though Zion directly accuses God of attacking her and killing her children, the book still belongs in the sacred canon of Scripture. And furthermore, we can understand Zion’s complaints against God as a prayer. Even though it hurts to put language to the terrible situation she’s going experiencing, Zion bravely stays in relationship with God.

My interpretation of Zion’s role is different from many scholars’ I’ve studied. Many commentators conclude that Lamentations condemns Zion for her sinful behavior. I disagree, or at least think that the situation is more complicated. While Zion is on the hot seat at times, mostly, the poet approaches Zion with compassion. She’s shown as a sympathetic figure, much like you or me, who may well have done nothing to cause her suffering. Lamentations struggles to understand why Zion is in pain. And the book affords Zion the chance to speak for herself.

When Zion speaks, she says that she has rebelled. I want to suggest that the rebellion to which Zion admits is a rebellion against the idea of a God who uses war crimes, children’s innocent suffering, assault, and starvation as fair punishment. No matter what sin Zion could have committed, a just and loving God would not use those atrocities in judgment against her.

The notions of God rejected by Zion are ones that I deeply believe constitute a barrier to healthy relationship with God. They wound people and distort the character of God’s heart. Like Zion, we need to rebel against ideas of God that are like that. Sometimes, people say things like, “God took your baby because he needed another angel,” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” People who say those things usually mean well, but when we’re honest, why would a God who is all-powerful need a mother’s baby? Isn’t a mother’s need to hold her child in her arms far greater? And how could God possibly expect anyone to “handle” a tragedy like the death of a child? Those kinds of statements idolize a false god who is less than the perfectly loving and mighty parent that we know God to be. Rebellion against those kinds of ideas about God is not just okay—it’s theologically imperative.

Zion rebels against broken theologies so she can move towards healthy relationship with the true God of the universe, who can give her what she really needs. Now, in my experience of relationships, I’ve found it can be challenging to ask for what we really need. My husband Will and I have been married for two-and-a-half years, and as much as we are besottedly in love with each other, our relationship has had its challenging moments. When I was pregnant with our daughter, we learned the true meaning of “hanger”: that is, hunger plus anger. I kept finding myself bating Will into pointless arguments. On one of the many occasions I regret, I remember criticizing Will’s kitchen-cleaning ability, and ending my tirade with the exclamation, “AND I’m hungry!” Will responded, “Well, why didn’t you say that first? How am I supposed to know what you really need?” Truth be told, all I needed was Chinese vegetable fried rice. But often in relationships, it’s often hard to articulate what we need to the ones we love the most.

Lamentations is spiritually powerful because in it, Zion shows us what kind of God we need in tragedy. Her lament is an unusual kind of prayer. For most of the lament, she doesn’t ask God for anything you’d expect—deliverance for herself or her children, the restoration of Jerusalem, or even food to eat. Instead, she asks God repeatedly to see her. In the short passage of Lamentations that we read, Zion asks for God to see her multiple times. In verse 11, two different Hebrew verbs command God to take notice. Zion says to God, “Look and see!” And then again in verse 20, she says, “See, Lord, how distressed I am!”

Zion’s plea for God to see her is something I think we can all relate to. When we’re suffering, it’s easy to feel invisible. The rest of the world keeps motoring along, just business as usual, and no one seems to notice that tragedy has us stopped in our tracks. When people ask us how we are, most of the time, we say, “Fine,” when inwardly, we wish more than anything that someone would dig just a little deeper and discover the truth that things are not okay. And when we’re a few degrees removed from tragedy, it’s so much easier to close ourselves off to the pain others are feeling than to truly see them and put ourselves in their shoes.

Unknown In 2016, the week after another mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, one of the most moving responses I saw was Anderson Cooper’s homage to victims on his CNN show. In the video, Cooper slowly read the names and ages of each of the 49 fatally shot victims while their faces played across the screen. That video made me feel personally connected to the shooting for the first time. By watching it, I saw the people who died, and that seeing transformed my abstract knowledge of their deaths into a personal reality. Seeing is powerful.

And though we want and need people to see us as we really are, we need God to see us even more. I’d contend that in moments of tragedy, what we need most is a God who sees us. For those of us who believe in God, it’s not so much that we need to see evidence of God’s existence; it’s that we need for God to acknowledge the realities of our existence. I’ll say that again: we need to see evidence of God’s existence less than we need for God to acknowledge the realities of our existence.

There’s only one time in the Hebrew Bible that a person has the privilege of assigning a name to God. And that’s in Genesis, when Hagar, the shamed and banished concubine of Abraham, encounters God in the wilderness.  God saves the lives of Hagar and her young son Ishmael by pointing them to water. And in response, Hagar gives God a new name: El-Ro’i, “God who sees me.” When Hagar was invisible to Abraham and Sarah, so much so that they exiled her into the wilderness to die alongside her precious child, God still saw Hagar. God still cared to find out what Hagar really needed.

In Lamentations, Zion demands that God take a long look at her, because we so desperately need a God who sees us. We need a God who sees us as we truly are. We need a God who strips away the masks we put on when we say “I’m fine” but really our hearts are breaking. We need a God who recognizes just how devastating our reality is and who refuses to look away.

I don’t at all wish to suggest that the New Testament neatly ties up the loose ends of the questions that Zion raises in Lamentations. But I do believe that in Jesus Christ, we encounter a God who really sees us. In our passage from John for today, the siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are dear friends of Jesus. And while Jesus is away traveling, Lazarus dies. When Jesus finally makes it to the scene, Lazarus has already been dead three days. Like Zion in Lamentations, Mary and Martha want Jesus to see the tragedy that has struck them. They say, “Lord, come and see.”

Jesus does see. And when he sees, he weeps. Jesus’ weeping doesn’t solve the two sisters’ unanswered question of why Jesus delayed in coming to Lazarus’ side. It doesn’t erase Mary and Martha’s painful memory of their brother’s death. But Jesus’ weeping does show us what Immanuel, “God with us,” truly means. God sees our reality, no matter how terrible, and will not look away.

The book of Lamentations is structured like a conversation. Different characters speak at different points. And so today, I want to continue that conversation. If I could speak to Woman Zion today, I would say, “Sister, you don’t have to be comforted today. You don’t have to be okay today. You can be mad at God today. And all that is alright. You are so brave for naming aloud the truths of your life. Thank you for giving us permission to do the same thing. Thank you for insisting that God see you.”

And for all of us here today, I want us to remember that God is everything to us. We believe in a God…

who spoke the universe into being.

whose mighty hand and outstretched arm delivered God’s people from slavery.

who raised Jesus from the dead and whose power lives in us.

But I don’t think that’s all we need to hear about God today. We believe in a God made known…

in the grieving of mothers who have lost their children.

in the songs of protest of people who will no longer be silenced.

in the tears Jesus wept outside the tomb of his friend.

and above all else, in Jesus’ broken body on a cross.

Friends, I wait in certain expectation of the day when the new creation will come upon us to comfort us, when every tear will wiped from our eyes. The story ends with the tombs of our broken lives as empty as the tomb of the risen Christ. But right now we’re on a journey through the Valley. And until that day of new creation comes, when the captives are released, the blind have their sight, and the oppressed go free, God sees us. God is lamenting with us.

Dear Baby Girl: Everything I Want

Dear Baby Girl,

On Friday, I took you and Arlo the dog for a stroll around the apartment complex. You were snuggled in your carrier, and you drifted off to sleep, resting your 99th percentile head on my chest.

We passed a woman and her partner going from their apartment to their car. I smiled and asked how they were, as I’m trying to program myself to do. As they got into their car, I heard the woman saying, “That girl has everything I want right there.”

I almost laughed. The woman couldn’t be serious. She was immaculately dressed and made up. I was wearing a ratty, 10-year-old T-shirt covered in the spinach you hypothetically ate for lunch, milk stains, and possibly other substances too terrible to mention. The woman looked well-rested. I look like someone who’s been conditioned to wake up at 3 A.M. every night, whether or not the baby is sleeping. Her car and accessories suggested relative affluence. Our bank account suggests that the next unexpected medical or auto bill would be very bad news indeed.

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But I think she was serious. She saw (or maybe imagined) a sliver of my life, and something about it resonated deeply with what she wants and hopes for herself. And when I took a telescopic view, I could understand. I think she saw a picture of love, family, and letting each other be enough.

Baby Girl, you are so wonderful. Arlo is so wonderful. Your daddy is so wonderful. When I’m honest, though, I have to admit that I’ve always looked ahead to the next thing, idealized what I didn’t have and underappreciated what I did. I’ve been in a season of wishing-away. I’ve wished for a time when your daddy and I aren’t both in graduate school and can earn salaries commensurate with our education, for a time when I can get more work done, for a time when you can walk and my shoulders are less sore.

At our wedding, we read 1 Corinthians 13, one verse of which says in part, “[Love] always protects.” I don’t remember much of what our pastor, Matt, preached in his homily, but I will always remember him saying,

Always protect what you’ve got right now.

Right now—not some fictional tomorrow when we’re less tired, less easily frustrated with each other, and less financially tenuous.

“Right now” is so precious. Your daddy and I have a strong and exciting relationship, a beautiful and smart child, and a dog who derpily loves us. We have a safe apartment and enough food to eat. We have $6 dates, Netflix marathons, and long talks on our porch. We are able to work towards fulfilling careers while also spending lots of time at home with you. And we have a community that treats us like its flesh and blood.

Forgive me when I forget the beauty of this moment. It’s everything I want.

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughter: Starting a Job

Dear Baby Girl,

Tomorrow is my first faculty orientation. I’ll learn how to enter grades, get my first ID that says “Faculty” on it, and probably hear a lot of school policies that I’ll forget in roughly 3 minutes. None of those things worry me. What worries me is that for the first time, I’ll miss your entire day. Your daddy will choose your outfit, make sure you get your “milkies” and apple puree, take you on errands, and deal with the requisite diaper blowouts. Meanwhile, I’ll be on 24-E driving to the seminary on the mountain.

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When I first heard about this job, I almost didn’t apply for it. And then I applied for it, but when I got the offer, I almost didn’t take it. I told myself I shouldn’t take the job because you need me too much. But let’s be real, Debbie Joy—we both know that isn’t totally true. We both know you have a daddy who will rearrange his schedule to meet your needs and to make my professional dreams come true.

The truth is that I will miss you so much that it scares me. For 39 weeks and 6 days, I carried you in my womb, and I loved every moment (okay, maybe I didn’t love the last few moments so much).  I knew exactly where you were and that I was doing exactly what you needed. Ever since you made your speedy exit, you’ve been inching away from me: You learned to take a bottle from your daddy when needed; you learned to sleep without me; you learned to roll away from me. One day soon, I think you’ll be on the move for real. And I’ll learn more and more to accept that you’re Debbie Joy all on your own—you don’t need me to do your living for you.

Sometimes I ask myself why I work outside the home, when I see so many mamas thriving while home full-time with their babies. I want to be like them. But I think the answer is that I’m not sure I’ll be 100% me if I am home 100% of the time. God made me your mama, and God also made me passionate about teaching, researching, and writing. While being your mama is the most important thing I’ve ever done in my whole life, I’m worried that if I feel like I’m only getting to be 80 or 90% myself, the other 20 or 10% might cause a whole heck of a lot of trouble. When I go away, it’s so I can come back and be more “there” for you than I was before.

And I also go away because the teaching, researching, and writing I do are to help make the world a better place for you and children like you. I want you to grow up in a world where Christians like your daddy and me use the Bible to build each other up, to create community, and to do justice and love kindness. I teach so people can understand how to use the Bible like that.

And I go away because I want you to see me and believe that you can do anything. I want you to know that you can grow up and have kids or not, and you can be a stay at home mom or not. I want you to know that you can be a philosopher or an engineer or a chef or President of the USA (although right now, that bar is set pretty low). You can be whatever God calls you to be. (Just please, please, please don’t decide you want to play in the NFL or be an MMA fighter. That would put my feminist convictions to the test.) When you look back on your childhood, I want you to remember me as an empowered woman and know that you can be empowered, too.

Here’s what I’ll do tomorrow. I’ll do my job, and I’ll do it in a way that I hope will make you proud of me one day when you’re bigger. I will look at pictures of you all day. I’ll check my classy flip phone to see if your daddy texts me any updates about you. I’ll worry and I’ll wonder and I’ll wait until I can press your round, smooth cheek against mine again. And I’ll trust that your daddy and God don’t need me to tell them how to care for you.

But I’ll miss you more than you can fathom.

Love,

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughter (at 5ish months)

Dear Baby Girl,

You’re now five months old, plus a week or so. You roll, sit up, laugh constantly, eat a few solids, and grab everything (including my hair…ouch!). I call you my little buddy, because we go through our days together, you riding on my left hip or inside your carrier like a tiny kangaroo.

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Fortunately, you smile and laugh a lot, too!

But you also have struggled. You’ve struggled with sleep off-and-on since the dreaded four-month sleep regression rolled in like a summer thunderstorm. Teething pain and the (necessary but unfortunate) swaddle-weaning have only made things worse. There have been a few terrible nights when it seemed like all the nursing, rocking, walking, and swaying in the world couldn’t help you.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, because the pain of labor was pretty darn terrible, but the height of birth pain was easier on my emotions than your primal screams. Your daddy offered me noise-canceling headphones to protect my ears. But even though the sound is truly an assault on my eardrums, that isn’t what bothers me. It’s the knowledge that you’re hurting somehow that breaks my heart. The sight of your precious face scrunched up to scream and fat tears wetting your chubby cheeks is enough to make me weep, too.

“I’m here, Debbie Joy,” I whisper to you. “Mama’s here. We’re going to be okay.”

I insert these whispers into those moments when you gulp down some air to continue your shrieks of woe. And sometimes you hear me, and I successfully interrupt your sadness. Your arms stop flailing for a moment. Your brown eyes lock with mine. Your body nestles into the curves of my chest. For a moment, I feel like a real mama.

“That’s my girl,” I whisper. “I’m here for you. Mama’s not gonna leave you.”

There is a part of me that becomes whole in these moments. While only God knows how many times I’ve been decidedly ungodly in my relationship to you, right then, I know I’m joining in the life of God. Before you were born, I never really appreciated the idea of God as a mother, of God mothering humanity. But at my best as a mother, I know that I can care for you in this way, because this—and so much more—is the way that God has cared for me.

“I have loved you with an everlasting love,” God whispers to me when I hold you in the darkness pierced by your cries. “I have called you by name; you are mine.”

God gave me a name. God comforts me at my most fearful. God cradles me when I am afraid. God sings over me with joy. God feeds me with the bread of life. God promises never to leave me.

On some level, these are also the things I aspire to do as your mother.   And someday, I hope and pray that in spite of all my imperfections, my motherhood will help you know the One who loves you more fully and deeply than even I can.

Thank you for showing me more about how God loves me. Without you, I wouldn’t have known so well.

Your Mama

Letter to My Daughter (at 2ish months)

Dear Baby, The last time I wrote you, I was 25 weeks pregnant, and I hadn’t yet experienced the miracle of seeing your face. It’s now been two months since the midwife caught the squirmy, slimy, perfect alien from my belly (that was you) and said that you were mine. Every day since then, I haven’t been able to stop marveling at your beauty. It’s not mainly a matter of your appearance—although you are adorable—but instead, it’s the radiance of your whole personhood. Here’s what I see when I look at you.

When I look at you, I see the woman you will become. If I had to pick just one word for you, it would be fierce. Since the day you were born, your daddy and I have noticed a certain determination in everything that you do. Right now, you try your darnedest to crawl while Daddy plays “Eye of the Tiger,” and you root for milk with a sometimes-alarming intensity.

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Sometimes even fierce babies have to nap.

We get the feeling that as you grow up, you’ll still be fierce, though in more and more mature ways. Our culture doesn’t generally appreciate fierce women, especially not fierce women of color. But your daddy and I love your ferocity. While we will encourage you to grow in compassion and wisdom along with your feistiness, we will never ask you to douse that fire that’s in your heart. I believe that you will grow into a woman who has the ferocity to stand up for her own dignity and the dignity of others.

When I see you, I see the sacrifice of so many people. The day you were born, your daddy commented to me that you would never “pass” as white. Your beautiful, smooth skin is already much darker than mine, even though you’ve spent most of your time indoors or ensconced in your carrier. We’ll let you name your racial identity for yourself, but as far as our culture is concerned, you are a person of color.

Right now you have no idea that many of your ancestors came to our country in slave ships, that Jim Crow laws denied the dignity of your black ancestors, or that some of your white ancestors fought a war to keep slavery legal. You don’t know that within your grandparents’ lifetime, the marriage that gave you life was illegal in this state. And you don’t know about the many people who have protested, litigated, legislated, lived, and died so that your rights and our family would be protected.   One day you will learn these things, and the struggles of your forebears may weigh on you. But I believe that if these people could speak to you, they would tell you that it was worth it. The existence of our family has come as such a cost, but your value is inestimable.

When I look at you, I see the unlikely intersection of two stories that only God could weave together. Your daddy and I are not alike in many ways. We come from very different cultural contexts and families; our personalities are quite different; and we have different views about certain issues.   It’s our shared love of God that grants us the gift of loving each other. The love of God drew us together through a succession of choices we made independently, allowing us to meet at a time when we were open to sharing our hearts and lives with one another.

 While you are a person in your own right, every time I see you, I’m reminded of the love that created you—a love that has altered our plans, continually exposed our self-centeredness, and drawn us deeper into the mystery of God’s love. In the two years we’ve been married, we’ve lived in three different homes, worked on three different graduate degrees, and watched far too many episodes of Bones and Criminal Minds.   We’ve loved each other through difficult jobs, unreasonable arguments, and the loss of a parent. After all of that, I can say with assurance that you are the most beautiful thing we’ve created together.

You are so beautiful.

Love,

Your Mommy

“God Will Not Take a Life”

Five-and-a-half years ago, I watched people who nearly lost their lives to murder dig a grave for a man who was convicted of and executed for murder.

I was a live-in volunteer at Jubilee Partners, a Christian intentional community  in rural Georgia. Jubilee provides temporary housing, an ESL program, and cultural immersion experiences for refugees entering the United States.  Over the summer I lived there, I had the privilege of knowing refugees from Myanmar–Karen, Karenni, and Chin people who were the target of government persecution. Many of them had lost their jobs and land, experienced sexual violence, and watched their families die.

14504640182_2458726b8a_b.jpgIn their shoes, I doubt I’d summon much mercy for anyone associated with murder. And yet one hot day in July, I watched these people, along with other residents of Jubilee, dig a grave for a man whom the state of Georgia had executed for murder. Sweat drenched the bodies of the gravediggers as they shoveled the heavy Georgia red dirt out of the hole they were digging.

The grave  meant that the convicted murderer could be buried with greater dignity than he would be within the Georgia prison system, in concert with this man’s own desires. Any relatives who wanted to could easily visit his grave in peace and privacy.

I thought about that hot July day in Georgia when I heard that Dylann Roof, the shooter whose racist ideology motivated his deadly shooting spree in Charleston, had been sentenced to death. While it’s easy for me to oppose the death penalty in the abstract, in the concrete, Roof’s actions and ideology trigger a rage in me that made me not at all sorry to hear the news of his sentencing.  If Roof’s execution were carried out, what kind of supernatural power could compel anyone of conscience to dig his grave?

In an often-overlooked story in II Samuel, David’s son Absalom has committed fratricide, killing his brother Amnon. David is furious, but he seeks counsel from a wise woman to discern whether he should seek Absalom’s life.  The wise woman replies,

We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up. But God will not take away a life; he will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished forever from his presence (2 Sam. 14:14).

So often, Christians make a caricature of  an “Old Testament God” who is distant, always angry, and merciless.  They juxtapose the “Old Testament God” with a “New Testament God” made known in Jesus who offers grace and redemption.  But the God we encounter here is one who is relentless in pursuing the worst that humanity has to offer.  The God we find here offends us not because he is angry and merciless, but because he is relentless in attempting to gather all wrongdoers back into his presence.

A lot of people seem to die while still “banished from his presence,” still water spilled on the ground.  And that seems counter to God’s intentions for humanity.  But II Samuel challenges me to believe that as long as there is breath in our lungs (and maybe even after that), God is forever trying to reconcile each of us to himself…

…even presidents whose behavior and policies I find morally repugnant.

…even murderers who would kill my husband and daughter because of their race.

…even people whose lives fail to reflect the divine image as much as mine does.

When that reconciliation doesn’t happen, God mourns.  God’s tears are the water spilled on the ground that cannot be gathered up.  And maybe in those moments, God calls us to mourn along with him.  We bury dead possibilities for reconciliation in hopes of a resurrection we can’t yet imagine.

Between Jericho and Aleppo

Many Christians like myself get introduced to the Conquest story of Joshua innocently enough.  I remember singing “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” with abandon at Vacation Bible School. But at Jericho, not only do the “walls come tumbling down,” but Joshua also leads a massacre of everyone but Rahab the prostitute and her family.

When news of Aleppo fills our newsfeed, Joshua may not seem so innocent. The Jericho massacre may resonate eerily with the real-life massacres of today’s Syrians.

The Israelites, recently freed from slavery, receive a Divine mandate to wipe out the Canaanite population that inhabits “their” Promised Land. The perceived danger is that the Canaanites will corrupt Israelite worship with idolatry. The threat is so severe that when the Israelites fail to annihilate a Canaanite city, God’s punishment follows.

The Conquest narrative is not likely historical. The archaeological record does not confirm the biblical account of a Conquest. And Joshua itself was written much later than the historical period it claims to describe. It’s a literary work rather than a historical one by modern standards. However, whatever the Joshua narrative lacks in historical fact, it compensates for in ideological clout.  Christians have used Joshua to justify genocide and other types of mass murder.

We’ve proffered explanations for why God “had” to order the massacres: The Canaanites were “irredeemable.”  The Israelites were God’s elect.  It was all part of God’s plan.

But the question for Christians is this: Do we worship a God who sanctions and even demands the slaughter of innocent people?

The answer for me is, “No, never.” Whether the massacred victims are in Jericho or Aleppo, the God I love and serve weeps over them. The God I love and serve promises justice.

To respond to crises like the Aleppo killings, we Christians need to take hard look at the ground we stand on.  Because I regard the Bible as the sacred, divinely-inspired human attempt to put Divine revelation into words, that means acknowledging tensions within the Scriptures.  The Bible rarely speaks with just one voice. Most often, I think the biblical writers nailed it. But sometimes, like in the Conquest narratives, I think they got it badly wrong.

But the God I love and serve still speaks from the Bible to moments like the Aleppo crisis.  The God I love and serve says,

Open your mouth for the voiceless,
For justice for all the destitute (Prov. 31:8).

For the God I love and serve, whom the Scriptures reveal time after time, defending the voiceless is not an afterthought. It is the agenda. Yet the slaughter of innocents in Joshua  stands in tension with the revelation of such a God.

I think our skill in pushing the “mute” button on the voices of suffering innocents in Joshua translates into more than problematic theology.  That dexterity may enable us to push the “mute” button on Aleppo, too.

Grief and Joy Walk Together

The most famous words in Lamentations are the ones that the beautiful hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” immortalized:

Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

This refrain, which Thomas O. Chisholm wrote in 1923, paraphrases the KJV translation of Lamentations 3:22-23.   Ever since my husband Will and I got married, these words have hung in our home, printed on a sign I bought for 25 cents at Goodwill. “Great is Thy Faithfulness” has become the banner our hearts carry each day.

img_0096Remembering the context of these words makes them all the more powerful.  The rest of Lamentations is heartbreaking in its graphic descriptions of war and exile, which include famine, cannibalism, massacre, and sexual violence.  Lamentations is 5 chapters long, and these verses in chapter 3 are the book’s main affirmation of God’s goodness.  They’re a breath of fresh air amid despair that can threaten to drown us.

The writer of Lamentations chose not to make “Great is thy faithfulness” the happy ending of Lamentations. It’s not a fairy tale happily-ever-after that washes away the pain of the rest of book.  Instead, by placing these verses in the middle of the book, God’s faithfulness surfaces in the midst of the agony that the Judean people experience.  For a brief moment, God’s ever-present mercy is apparent, triumphant above the pain.

But even in the moment of mercy’s triumph, Lamentations doesn’t forget about pain.  In Lam. 3:24, the word that typically is translated as “hope” can just as easily mean “wait.” Waiting can be agonizing–the wait for a critical phone call, the wait for a diagnosis, the wait for relational restoration.  For the writer of Lamentations, God’s faithfulness belongs even to the domain of painful in-between times.

This summer, my husband and I experienced some hope/sadness tension for ourselves. By the end of June, I suspected that something other than mere indigestion was making my stomach turn.  One morning I slipped out of bed early to take a pregnancy test while Will was still asleep. A few minutes later, I ran back into the bedroom and woke him up with a huge smile and the news he was a father.

That night, we called Will’s family to let them know the great news.  Will’s mom sobbed with happiness through the whole phone call.  She just managed to get out the words, “My baby is having a baby!” We prayed together and said good night.

A few days later, around 10 A.M., I heard the most terrible sound I’ve ever heard: the sound of Will getting the news that his mom had unexpectedly died that morning. On this side of heaven, she would not meet the grandchild she already loved so much.  She would not be there to mother us as we became parents ourselves.  We’d had no idea that the news of our pregnancy would be our goodbye.

Over the next few weeks, grief and joy were no longer strangers, but both our companions.  We went to the funeral and we visited the house of Will’s childhood, somehow less home now. And then we returned to Nashville, still heartbroken, and arrived at our first ultrasound appointment.  After all the death of the past weeks, I could hardly believe it when we saw the flickering that confirmed new life.  Our baby had a heartbeat. Our pregnancy was viable.  For that day, at least, a tomb was empty.

Lam. 3:23-25 isn’t the end of lament in Lamentations.  There’s still a lot more pain that the authors lead us through. 15328324_10101460750331447_1716829510_n And the news that our pregnancy was viable certainly didn’t wash away our sadness that we lost a mother. Our journeys of grief and joy are ongoing and simultaneous.

One beauty of Lamentations is that it teaches us that we don’t have to deny the reality of either sadness or joy, waiting or hope. God’s faithfulness is sovereign always. And so our banner reminds us:

Great is thy faithfulness when we mourn the mother we lost.

Great is thy faithfulness when we celebrate the new life growing within me.

Great is thy faithfulness, every moment of our lives.

What is Sodomy?

When I teach Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, students are often eager to talk about the Genesis 19 story of God’s destruction of Sodom.  Word on the street has it that God destroyed the city of Sodom because of the men’s “homosexual practices.”   But that’s not an interpretation of the story that holds up under rigorous exegesis.

In Genesis 19, God is on a mission to prove why the city of Sodom is bad enough to warrant its destruction. So God sends two angels to Sodom in the guise of strangers, in need of food and lodging.  Abraham’s nephew Lot graciously hosts these strangers.  But the men of the city soon come and “press upon” (an innuendo for rape) Lot’s door, demanding that Lot send out the guests so that the Sodomites can “know them” (i.e. have sex with them).  Lot refuses, but offers his daughters as sexual bait instead (yeah, he was a great father).  Lot and his daughters barely escape with their lives.

Fair enough, this story strongly suggests sexual acts between men.  But a) these sexual acts involve rape, not mutual relationships between consenting adults, and b) the essence of Sodom’s wickedness seems to lie not in sex, but in the humiliation of needy outsiders.  Sex is involved only as a tool for humiliation, not as a means to relationship or pleasure.

Often the Bible gives us internal clues about how we may interpret it.  Ezekiel 16:49-50 offers an interpretation of what the sin of Sodom actually is:

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it (NRSV).

According to Ezekiel, sodomy is not sex between two men.  Sodomy is idolatry of our own comfort that leads us to exclude people who are hungry and people who are outsiders to our communities.  The Sodomites in Genesis didn’t threaten to rape the angels because they were gay (who ever heard of a city where all the men were gay, anyway?).  The Sodomites became predators because they were hoping to humiliate the outsiders.  They hoped that the strangers would leave Sodom empty-handed, so that no insider to their city would have to share their hearth and their larder.

The sodomy that Genesis and Ezekiel condemn has nothing to do with rainbow flags and people committed to spending their lives loving each other. On the other hand, sodomy might have a lot to do with contemporary American political rhetoric.

Letter to My Daughter

Dear Baby Girl,

Your daddy and I haven’t held you in our arms yet (and honestly, we’re hoping we won’t for another 15 weeks).  We don’t know if the hue of your skin will be closer to your daddy’s warm brown or your mommy’s pale blush, or if you’ll have your daddy’s broad nose or your mommy’s slightly upturned one.  We don’t know if you’ll be the life of the party like your daddy or rather stay home with a book like your mommy.  But there are a few things that we know about you already, without question.

We know that God delights in you, exactly as you are.  Baby Girl, as much as it breaks my heart, there will be people in this broken world who cannot see your beauty the way we do. We know that as you grow up, you will hear stories and see images of people of color who were murdered for no reason.  You will see racism in the city where we live, in the schools you attend, and in the opportunities made available to people of color. You may ask me why people say things like “Make America White Again,” when you and your daddy aren’t white. You may ask me why all the presidents so far have been boys, and why there are fewer girls who are famous athletes, scientists, and pastors.  You may ask me why our country elected a man to the presidency who is a known predator on strong, smart, beautiful women like you. As much as I wish I could shelter you from prejudice and discrimination, I know that some people will see you as “less” because of the color of your skin and the fact that you are a woman.  And all these things may cause you to wonder if you really matter.

baby-larryBut I promise that we will tell you over and over again that you matter, exactly as you are. I believe that it was God’s intention for you to be precisely the person that you are, and that person is of inestimable value in God’s eyes. We read in Genesis that God created you “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:31).  We read in Psalm 139:13-14 that even now, before you are even born, God “knit [you] together” inside of me, that you are

fearfully and wonderfully made.

And as you grow and develop into the woman God created you to be, God doesn’t just tolerate you–God delights in you.  Zephaniah 3:17 tell us that God

rejoices over you with singing.

Baby Girl, God created you exactly how you are–as the daughter of a black man from inner-city Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a white woman from suburban Atlanta, Georgia–and those aspects of your personhood, as well as every part of your personality and character, bring immeasurable joy to him.

We know that Jesus gave his life for you.  Baby Girl, because you are precious and beloved in God’s sight just as you are, Jesus came to live and die for you, just as he did for the whole world.  His heart broke so much for the pain of the world that he gave his life for it.  Jesus beheld the way that the people hurt each other, creation, and God’s own heart, and he spread his arms wide on the cross to hold us all.  Jesus has borne the pain of every sorrow and difficulty you will ever know because he took on flesh in this broken and sinful world.  When anyone’s behavior or words suggest to you that you don’t matter, turn your eyes to the cross and see the Savior who says that you matter so much that he died for you.

We know that the One who died for you is seated on the throne. Baby Girl, when you face those times when people don’t value you, remember that they are speaking from a position of weakness.  The holder of true authority is the One who has called you precious and chosen and who has died for you.  The God of the universe, the Risen Christ, is seated on the throne above all. In the Old Testament, Isaiah says, “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (6:1).  And in the New Testament, it is Christ who is enthroned. In Hebrews 8:1, he is

one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.

So know this, whenever somebody questions your worth: They are wrong, and their “authority” is meaningless compared to the sovereignty which the Christ who died for you holds over the world.

We know that we will fail at times as your parents, but we will never stop trying to mirror God’s love for you.  Baby Girl, before you were even conceived, we prayed for you to come into our lives. The morning I found out I was pregnant with you was one of the happiest moments of my life. The moment I told your daddy he was going to be a daddy, tears of joy rolled down his face.  But I have a confession: We don’t know how to be your parents yet. I don’t know how to raise a young woman of color to be confident and compassionate in this world that can be so unjust and unkind.  I fully anticipate messing up in spite of my best intentions. But I look to God as the ultimate and perfect parent, of whom the Psalmist says,

“If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up” (Ps. 27:10).

When my attempts to mirror God’s love for you fail, please forgive me, and know that God will not fail you as your heavenly parent.

Baby Girl, the love we have for you is more instinctive, deeper, and broader than anything I have ever known. But it is only a drop of water compared to the ocean of God’s love for you.  I pray that love defines every moment of your life as you walk through this broken and beautiful world.

Your Mommy