25 November 2012
Reign of Christ Sunday
When I learned that the liturgical theme this season was “Faith in a Dark Time,” I picked Psalm 93 from the alternative readings in the lectionary. It’s a Psalm that pits the power of God against the primeval waters. Given the past few months, we don’t have to try very hard to understand the sea here is a force of chaos and relentless destruction. But the psalmist assures us that even as the waves thunder down on us, God is the mightier: “the world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.”
It’s a nice thought, and, as one who didn’t experience the wrath of Superstorm Sandy directly, it’s not too hard for me to embrace this particular Psalm at the moment. But I suspect that for the thousands who were in danger, who were displaced, who lost everything, it might be a more difficult truth to swallow at the moment. Though I’ve never been a flood victim, I can sympathize nonetheless with that struggle, because I have experienced times of darkness, and I have struggled to cling to my faith in their midst. This morning I want to share with you the lessons I’ve learned about this, shaped largely by my experience working with the “I Have a Dream” Foundation in Charlottesville.
I have worked as the Program Director there for the past ten years, during which time Seekers has graciously supported my work with your money and your prayers. For this I am incredibly grateful.
Working for “I Have a Dream” introduced me to a world where substance abuse, neglect, dysfunction, shame, powerlessness, and poverty ruled. Not only was I clueless about what to do with these things, I didn’t even know how to DIGEST them.
After one particularly horrific week, I prayed one of the most honest and, now I can say, important prayers I’ve ever prayed. Full of rage, I said: “God, this is not the way things are supposed to be, and You know it.” I didn’t understand how or why God could allow such senseless tragedy to happen in the lives of so many children, and I got angry. I had never been angry with God before. Disappointed, maybe, like in eleventh grade when I prayed fervently that I would either win my student council election OR get asked to prom by Russell Crane, and neither happened. But never angry – because God was God, after all. Up until this point, I assumed there wasn’t really a place for anger in our relationship. Suddenly, I began to understand those psalmists and prophets and cranky Israelites who seemed to be yelling at God all the time. And I started yelling right along with them, too angry to care whether or not it was appropriate.
In time, I came to realize that being angry at God is a way I honestly react to, one the one hand, the chaos and darkness in the world, and on the other, my belief that God exists, that God cares, and that God is, as our Psalm says today, “robed in majesty and armed in strength.” If I did not believe that God can intervene in our world for good, I would not be angry. After all, I’m not angry at my sister for failing to bring lasting peace to the Middle East, because as much as I want to see that happen and as awesome as she is, I don’t really see that as in her realm of control. So I’ve found that the very act of being angry reaffirms my belief in God’s goodness and might. And also his grace: because God can handle, and forgive, my anger.
I also felt, deep in my core, that God is angry, too. God is angry that Matthew was abused. God is angry that Elizabeth has no relationship with her father because he’s been in out and of jail for her entire life. I began to see that God calls me in and through my anger to work for justice…. which brings me to the second thing I’ve learned about faith: that God calls us, as members of the body of Christ, to struggle with the darkness. Yes, I know that on this next point that I am preaching to the choir here at Seekers.
I won’t speak for you, but when I feel the presence of despair, sin, and destruction, my instinct most times is, like the prophet Jonah, to try get myself as far away as possible, as quickly as possible. I think living in America in the 21st century makes it exceptionally easy to follow this Jonah instinct, to isolate ourselves from the brokenness out there. There were times when I seriously considered quitting my job to do something less heartbreaking, something less maddening.
But the King who came down to walk on the earth Himself, to live among the chaos Himself, calls us not to fearful self-preservation, but to sacrificial engagement. I attended a lecture a few weeks ago at UVA’s Project for Lived Theology. Perry Perkins, a longtime community organizer, led a discussion entitled “Community Organizing as a Spiritual Discipline.” He argued that working to bring grater truth and justice to the world was not only important to our communities, but to our own spiritual development. Like the traditional spiritual disciplines – fasting, silence, confession, bible study, and so on – working to heal a broken world is a pathway to knowing and being known by God more deeply. Jonah needed Ninevah as much as Ninevah needed Jonah.
To give you an example of how this has played out in my own life, working with “I Have a Dream” has helped me understand God’s pursuing grace in a new and deeper way. Let me pause here and explain the structure of our program: our board targeted the elementary school in Charlottesville with the highest concentration of poverty – about 85% were on free lunch – and “adopted” the entire kindergarten. Those 62 children became “Dreamers” by virtue of being in the right place at the right time – there was nothing that they or their families did to earn a slot in this special group that received help graduating and going to college. Furthermore, there was nothing that a Dreamer could do – no class they could fail, no crime they could commit – to get permanently kicked out of the program. “Once a Dreamer, Always a Dreamer” is the motto. Therefore, it was my job not only to provide needed support for the children who wanted to be successful, but also to actively pursue the kids who were running in the opposite direction.
It’s a great concept, but living it out is another thing altogether. There was one day in 2008 when I was physically chasing down a girl who was truant from school. As she ran away from me, she was calling me every nasty and hateful name she could think of, while I’m just shouting, as calmly as I can while I sprint after her: “I am just trying to help you!” And the whole time I’m thinking to myself, “I have really lost my mind. I am literally running after this child while she is running away from school, and she is threatening to punch me in the face if I catch up to her. This is a real low point in my career.” I did catch up with her, and though she didn’t punch me, she didn’t come back to school with me either. And I knew that I was going to be chasing after her again the next day. It’s experiences like those that have given me the tiniest glimpse of the depths humility and grace of Jesus, who walked through life surrounded by people who just. didn’t. get. it. But he never gave up on them. He never gives up on me.
This is just one of the ways my faith has been strengthened even as it has been tested, like a muscle that is strengthened by trying its limits. As Paul reminds us, the discipline of engaging with our suffering world produces “perseverance;perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5:3-5).
I’ll end with the obvious: we cannot do this alone. The darkness is full of lies, and we need people around us who can remind us of the truth, who can retell us our own story when we have forgotten it. I surely would have burnt out at “I Have a Dream” without the voices of my friends and family who could remind me, on days when those waves of darkness were pounding, that God has shown His goodness and power in the lives of my kids in so many beautiful ways, that the chaos and destruction will NOT have the last word. As my friend Naomi recently wrote: “We pray for each other through the hard times, rejoice in the good, and remind each other like signposts of God’s faithfulness in our lives.”
And so, as a community of light, we can proclaim even during this season of dying and darkness:
“Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea—
the Lord on high is mighty.
Your statutes, Lord, stand firm;
holiness adorns your house
for endless days.”