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Healing Tears

Healing Tears

Lamentations 1:1-5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

5 August 2018

 

    

    Finally in 586 Before the Common Era, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had had enough of the Kingdom of Judah and its repeated rebellions, so he sent an army to destroy the city. And from that catastrophe we receive this little book of poems, five lamentations. Hear now the word of the Lord:

 

Lamentations 1:1-5

 

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.
The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate, her priests groan;
her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.
Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away, captives before the foe.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.

 

Walter Brueggemann writes that without grief "there is no newness." Only grieving breaks the numbness of denial and deception. He writes, "the riddle and insight of biblical faith is the awareness that only anguish leads to life, only grieving leads to joy, and only embraced endings permit new beginnings."

 

Preparing for this series, I read a number of good books on the nexus between trauma studies and religion. The best one was Trauma and Grace by Serene Jones, who is the President at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

She writes that one of the issues faced by victims of trauma is the end to an expected future. Many of us, particularly comfortable North Americans, have come to expect that life will have its ups and downs but generally will go well for us and that we won't be seriously uncomfortable. Experiences of grief, of course, shatter this illusion.

One sees something similar in the poems contained in the book of Lamentations. These poems voice the laments of Daughter Zion. The world she had known has now come to an end. The future she anticipated will not be. She continues to live, but something has died. The life she desired and dreamed of has died. And she now carries that death within her.

 

According to Serene Jones, the best example of this type of grief is the mother who has experienced reproductive loss. This is, sadly, a very common experience, even in our age of advanced medicine and fertility treatments. Women continue to struggle to become pregnant, to carry children to term, to birth healthy children.

Serene Jones writes of what happens when a mother who wants a child discovers she is pregnant:

 

She does not imagine it as just any life; she views it as a particular life, the life of her potential child. She immediately envisions it as a person with a smile like her father's, or thick black hair like her sister's. She also begins to measure her own future in terms of this imagined child's development. She imagines where he, her son, will sleep or what she, her daughter, will wear. She envisions him at school or her learning to drive. She conjures up the many possible tones of his voice or the shape of her feet, at birth and then at fifty. The woman's body begins to anticipate holding the child; she can smell her daughter's birthday cake; she can hear her son singing in his high school years. Her whole being, it seems, stretches itself into this child's future, and this future becomes the space of her own becoming.

 

    So, when she experiences reproductive loss, she "grieves not only an immediate loss, but also the loss of an entire lifetime, a lifetime lived vividly in the drama of her hoping." A "passionately imagined future."

 

    Serene Jones reminds us that even in this loss, God is with us. For at the crucifixion God's child died. At that moment God "[took] death into Godself." The living God "hold[s] death within it." God forever carries this loss inside. Serene Jones ponders this image of the Trinity as the "miscarrying, stillbirthing, barren-wombed God," who joins women in solidarity with their most painful loss.

    But she is very clear that our deepest losses aren't actually healed, nor would we want them to be. She writes, "wounds are not magically healed but are borne." Borne with an e. We learn how to carry them and carry ourselves. We learn how to continue living. This is holy resilience.

    And so Serene Jones recommends two spiritual practices—mourning and wonder. She writes, "To mourn and to wonder, that is what the spirit yearns for when it stands in the midst of trauma and breathes in the truth of grace." She writes that neither mourning nor wonder will answer all of our questions, but they will "open us to the experience of God's coming into torn flesh, and to love's arrival amid violent ruptures."

    While these practices speak specifically to reproductive loss, she recommends them as practices for anyone who has experienced any type of trauma or grief.

 

    So, what is mourning? I'm going to quote her at length, because what she writes is so good.

 

[Mourning is] a disposition in which your heart and mind give in to the loss and consent to dwell in the trauma with as much attention as can be mustered. It requires acknowledging how much was lost, how deeply it matters, how unstable the world has become in the aftermath, and how difficult it feels to be ever moving forward. . . . Grief is hard, actually the hardest of all emotions and perhaps the most intolerable because its demand are so excruciating. It requires a willingness to bear the unbearable. . . . The gift of mourning is that fully awakening to the depth of loss enables you to at least learn, perhaps for the first time, that you can hold the loss: you can bear terrors of heart and body and still see your way forward with eyes open.

 

    Through authentic mourning, then, we open ourselves and become vulnerable and experience the deep pain of loss. And through that experience we begin to see other things too. Jones writes that this is when wonder "appears."

 

Wondering is the simple capacity to behold the world around you (and within you), to be awed by its mystery, to be made curious by its difference, and to marvel at its compelling form. . . . Wonder is the complete opposite of the truncated, shut-down systems of perception that traumatic violence breeds in its victims.

 

    Serene Jones does not mean that we are to get lost in the world's beauty. It's not that simple. For the world is not simply beautiful, it is also dangerous and mysterious. What she advocates is a wondering at all of this. And here I think of the poet and essayist Mary Oliver who also writes of how standing within the beauty and mystery of the world "can re-dignify the worst-stung heart."

 

    Again, what Jones is grasping for is not the removal of the wound, but the power to bear it, to continue living.

    And we gain that power from the grace of God. She concludes her book by writing that salvation is "to be awakened" and "to stand courageously on the promise that grace is sturdy enough to hold it all—you, and me, and every broken, trauma-ridden soul that wanders through our history. To us all, love comes."


Be Holy

Be Holy

Leviticus 19:1-18, 33-37

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

12 August 2018

 

    

    This summer we have been telling stories. Ancient stories, of the people of Israel and Judah as they experienced domination, conquest, and exile. We have not told the story from any one book of scripture. Rather, every week we've been in a different Old Testament book, because this is a story that deeply shaped the entire canon of the Hebrew Scriptures.

    Last week we left off with the Book of Lamentations, a series of poems written in the wake of the final destruction of the city of Jerusalem.

    Today we read a passage from the Book of Leviticus, which presents itself as part of the ancient law code, but it too took shape in the time of exile and provides us a way to respond to trauma. For our immediate concern in telling these stories is to see what we might learn from them that we can apply to our situations. How can the ways the ancient Jews developed holy resilience help us to do so as well?

    So, hear now, a Word of the Lord from the Book of Leviticus.

 

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God. When you offer a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord, offer it in such a way that it is acceptable on your behalf. It shall be eaten on the same day you offer it, or on the next day; and anything left over until the third day shall be consumed in fire. If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is an abomination; it will not be acceptable. All who eat it shall be subject to punishment, because they have profaned what is holy to the Lord; and any such person shall be cut off from the people. When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

 

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

 

***

 

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them: I am the Lord.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.

 

In 2007, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote a book entitled The Clash Within. The book's idea subverted the common understanding of geopolitics as a clash between civilizations. Her immediate topic was the rise of Hindu fundamentalism as a force in Indian politics in a way that threatened the pluralistic vision of Mahatma Gandhi. But she identified a universal human struggle over how we treat the other.

Nussbaum wrote, "the real 'clash of civilization' is the clash within every modern society between those who are prepared to live with people who differ, on terms of equal respect, and those who seek the comfort of a single 'pure' ethno‐religious ideology."

This clash within societies has become even more obvious in recent years as Europe struggles with its refugee crisis and politics in the United States has become sharply divided on just this issue.

But Nussbaum does not only think that every modern society wrestles with this issue, she thought every human being does as well. She wrote, "At a deeper level, the 'clash' is internal to each human being, as fear and aggression contend against compassion and respect." In another place she said, "the real clash of civilisations is inside the human heart because in all of us, there are urges to dominate and to face the inconvenient challenge posed by people who are different, and then there are also instincts of compassion and respect." She continues, "It is here, within each person, as we oscillate uneasily between self-protective aggression and the ability to live in the world with others."

The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann thinks highly of Nussbaum's analysis. He writes that this clash "is inescapable. What matters is how we manage it; it will be managed in more healthy ways when it is named and processed in honest ways."

So, do we have any advice from Leviticus on how to name and manage this clash within between viewing "the other as neighbor or the other as threat"?

 

Well, you can imagine that for the ancient Jews the experience of conquest and living as exile among foreign empires must have shaped the way they think about the other. Indeed it did. And the Book of Leviticus is a prime example.

While living in exile in Babylon, the scribes of ancient Israel turned to ancient stories and texts in order to help them make sense of their world, including the question of why they had survived.

The scholar David Carr writes in his book Holy Resilience that one way they answered that question was through the idea of 'chosenness'—they had been chosen by God from among the nations and set apart for a special mission.

    Now, Carr is clear that if you read the Bible, the Jewish self-understanding was not that they were chosen because they were better than anybody else. Indeed, time and again the stories reveal them to be a stiff-necked, rebellious, and stubborn people. Yet, God persists with them, through covenant loyalty and steadfast love. This is grace, not merit.

    Carr writes, "No one could conquer or burn their chosenness like one could burn a city." And so for the ancient Jews living in isolated ghettos of Babylon their separated existence from the wider culture became part of their virtue.

    And one way they lived into this idea was to take the strict rules that had previously been applied only to priests and apply those rules to all the people. Here is where you get the idea of a 'priestly nation.' And so the Holiness Code takes shape, this long list of rules for life and ritual contained within the Book of Leviticus, which we've only read part of today. "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."

 

    David Carr credits this self-understanding with helping to give the ancient Jews the power of resilience to survive. But he also points out that there is a self-blame in this story, the sort of self-blame that is common in trauma victims. We encountered self-blame back at the beginning of this series and it has recurred often in the texts. It is the idea that what has happened to the people is because of their bad behavior, so in response they must behave differently. In this case, they must live according to a strict moral code so that they might be a holy people.

    This is a powerful idea. It can and does give a people the resilience to survive. But it is also a very unhealthy and damaging way to respond to trauma. It can lead to evil things.

 

    A good example comes from the Bible itself. When the Jews finally returned from exile and began to establish a new society in the ruins of Jerusalem, one of their leaders was the scribe Ezra and Ezra, who may have had a hand in shaping this Leviticus text, advocated a very strict observance of the moral code for the sake of purity. And that included purifying the people. In his most barbaric act, he forced Jews to divorce their Gentile spouses and disown their mixed-race children.

    This is one of the dangers of a Holiness Code. As Walter Brueggemann writes, "There is ample evidence . . . that holiness requires careful avoidance of the other because the other will defile and contaminate."

 

    But that was not the only perspective among the ancient Jews. There were those who represented the other side of the clash within, who wanted to welcome the stranger. These included the historians of the Deuteronomic tradition, prophets like Isaiah, the author the story of Jonah, and most importantly for us, a guy named Jesus. So, our scriptural canon contains both sides in this ancient social debate—fear and inclusion of the other.

 

    So, should we just reject Leviticus as representing the unhealthy side in this debate? Well, I'm all for recognizing that Leviticus contains some dangerous words and dangerous tendencies. But Leviticus is important precisely because it helps us wrestle with this universal human clash within and it does so through a long reflection on what precisely holiness means. Is there a form of holiness that doesn't lead to racial supremacy like Ezra? Walter Brueggemann says there is. Right here in Leviticus 19 the idea of holiness embraces an ethic of neighborliness.

    First, we have to remind ourselves that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We need a "healthy sense of self." For a toxic sense of self can lead to violence against the other. Martha Nussbaum point this out. She says, that often "when violence breaks out, it's all about men in particular, being eager to show their manliness by showing that they can bash others." She holds up Gandhi instead as an example of a real man, who stands naked except for his inherent human dignity and withstands the bashings given him by others.

    Brueggemann points out that in Leviticus 19, the love of neighbor initially meant those people who were part of the community and did exclude foreigners. But the very concept posed a question "Who is my neighbor?" It's even the question that Jesus asks. It is an idea that over time expands to include everyone we encounter.

    Brueggemann also points out that the initial idea is powerful in a different way—it "envisions a neighborhood for the common good." We are required by God to live in a way that contributes to the common good of others. We can't take only for ourselves. We can't exploit. We must give others what they deserve because of their inherent human dignity. So our society must provide sustenance for everyone. To do anything less is unjust and a sin against God.

    Brueggemann writes, "Thus engagement with the neighbor is a way to 'take time to be holy.'" So, just think of all those things you do to be kind to your neighbors and strengthen the common good. When you do those, you are being holy as God is holy.

    Beyond the neighbor, Leviticus 19 already contains an expansion of the circle of concern—"the poor have a special claim on the community." This becomes the repeated idea in our tradition that true holiness, true obedience to God is to take care of the widows, the orphans, and the strangers.

    So, notice verse 34. Even here in Leviticus 19 we read, "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."

    Brueggemann concludes, "Holiness means embrace of the other who is not a member of 'our tribe.'"

    Jesus, of course, will take this trajectory further and teach us that holiness also includes love of the enemy.

 

    Does Leviticus have anything to teach us about how to deal with the issues of immigrants and refugees currently facing our nation? Do the experiences of the ancient Jews help us to better understand our own 'clash within' between fear and compassion?

    Indeed, they do. To be holy, as God is holy, is to be neighborly. To overcome our fear and treat everyone with respect and compassion.


How Long?

How Long?

Habakkuk 1:1-4

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

15 July 2018

 

 

    The Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the armies of the Assyrian Empire. The prophet Hosea claimed this was a result of Israel's unfaithfulness to the covenant with God. In response the Southern Kingdom of Judah entered into a period of reform, renewing the covenant, in the belief that this would protect them from outside empires.

    Alas, though the Assyrian Empire declined and fell, a new empire, the Chaldeans, the Neo-Babylonians ruled by Nebuchadnezzar, arose in the east and spread across the Levant and soon Judah was threatened again.

    So, the prophet Habakkuk spoke to God:

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

    "To be traumatized is to be slashed or struck down by a hostile external force that threatens to destroy you." So writes theologian Serene Jones in her marvelous book Trauma and Grace.

    Trauma is a "threat of annihilation" that "overwhelms [the] capacity to cope." She writes,

Traumatic events are "overwhelming" insofar as they are experienced as inescapable and unmanageable. . . . Like the wave of a tsunami, they drown you and disable your normal strategies for dealing with difficulties. You lose a sense of yourself as someone who can take effective action against an attacking agent, because at a literal level, either you cannot fight back, or if you do, you fail.

 

    But it is not only agency which is robbed, so is imagination. Jones writes, "These events also overwhelm your capacity to make intelligible sense of them because they are stronger and more intense than the best meaning-making strategy you have. In this regard, they override your powers of both action and imagination."

    And so faced with impending annihilation, Habakkuk cries out, "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save?"

 

    The promises embodied in the stories and the rituals that were supposed to make sense of Habakkuk's world are threatened. His world doesn't make sense anymore. The wicked are triumphant. The good people are suffering. Violence is everywhere. Injustice reigns. How could you let this happen, God?

    This summer we are building Holy Resilience, using these ancient stories of trauma to reflect upon the attributes and skills that heal us, give us strength, and increase our perseverance. We've already explored the importance of safety and security—the trusting, compassionate relationships necessary for us to heal. The importance of our vulnerability and opening ourselves, rather than closing ourselves off. The power of telling our story, of having it heard by a caring person, who then helps us to write a new story.

    Now, what do we learn from Habakkuk? With catastrophe on the way, he cries out to God. He is not passive, he asks questions. He demands justice. He questions the providence of God.

    So, we too must learn to question and criticize and demand, if we are to develop strength and build our holy resilience.

 

    Preparing for this series, I read a handful of books. The intersection of trauma studies and religion is a hot trend in recent years.

    The most difficult book I read was Embracing Hopelessness by Miguel De La Torre. De La Torre is an ethicist at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he was one of the professors of Clyde McNeal, who was our pastoral intern five years ago.

    The book was difficult because hope is one of the key elements of my theological worldview. Heck, the church I pastored before coming here was even named "Hope."

    But De La Torre is critical of theologies of hope. He thinks they are the theologies of the privileged. Primarily the theologies of middle class white people. Only the privileged can be optimistic that everything will improve, that progress is inevitable, that good and right will triumph in the end. Because, plenty of examples from history point otherwise. So theologies of hope end up maintaining current oppressive social structures.

Hope [he writes], as a middle-class privilege, soothes the conscience of those complicit with oppressive structures, lulling them to do nothing except look forward to a salvific future where every wrong will be righted and every tear wiped away, while numbing themselves to the pain of those oppressed, lest that pain motivate them to take radical action.

 

 

 

Instead, he is concerned about those oppressed by the traumas of history, those with no hope that their situation will ever improve because they lack the political or economic power to save themselves or their children. He writes from the perspectives of victims of genocide, the extremely poor, the refugees.

    For example, "Hope becomes a distraction from the reality of the massacre about to unfold, an illusion obscuring what persecution demands of us. To hope is to bury one's head in the sands of peace, making us useless to meet the inevitable struggle that is coming."

    But what does he offer instead? For surely to abandon hope is to despair. De La Torre does not think so. He declares, "So do not offer me your words of hope; offer me your praxis for justice."

    He offers a "theology of desperation" for those who have no choice but to act. Though they act with no illusion of hopefulness that everything will turn out okay. They act for justice because they have to in order to survive.

    "Hopelnessness engenders desperation and doubt," he writes. And these two emotions he says "serve as the basis for faith."

    And so one of the acts of desperation that De La Torre offers is to challenge God.

 

To challenge God, to yell out in protest, to place God on trial is not the ultimate act of arrogance; rather, it is to take God seriously by crucifying our Christian-based idols for an honest appraisal . . . . And maybe this is the ultimate beauty of faith—to doubt, to wrestle, to curse, to question, to disbelieve, to oppose, . . . and to hold accountable God in defense of God's creation.

 

    Habakkuk cries, "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save?"

 

    I find De La Torre's book difficult because it challenges some of my deepest theological beliefs. But I respect it as a critique I must listen to and take account of, so that my theology of hope is not a theology of privilege, of the status quo, of white supremacy.

    For it must be a hope that demands, questions, criticizes, and acts for justice. Like Habakkuk did, in the face of impending annihilation.

 

    As I prepared my sermon this week I read an article in The Christian Century about the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama—the new monument commemorating the African American victims of lynching. Every known lynching victim is commemorated with their name cut in metal slabs, with each slab representing a county, so that we might see the institutional and structural aspects of this horrible part of American history. I suspect Douglas County has its slab, because of the infamous lynching of Will Brown here in 1919.

    The Christian Century article described the new museum as an act of nonviolent protest but "in this case the protest is not for rights but for memory." The article's author, Pete Candler, describes a visit to the memorial as a "confrontation"—"a slow initiation into a subject that everyone and no one knows about, that is rarely explored in depth and at best tacitly taken for granted." Candler adds, "Confrontation with truth—like the lifted burden of a secret, no matter how disorientingly painful—is always a gift."

    Reading this description of the memorial, I felt that it must serve as an example of how to build resilience in the wake of trauma. How to question, criticize, demand, and act, like Habakkuk.

    But the perspective is different from De La Torre's, for Pete Candler interprets the lynching memorial as hopeful. He writes,

This is not a feel-good story. But the aim of the memorial is ultimately hope: a clear-eyed and unromantic hope, grounded in honesty about the harsh reality of white supremacy and its relentless stranglehold on African American lives. The overall effect of the memorial is immense sorrow but oriented toward the regeneration that comes only from genuine confrontation with horrific injustice, from the recognition that there is no reconciliation without truth.