Last night I posted this to Facebook with the caption
It’s a beautiful time to be alive.
I posted it at 8:30 p.m.
Of course I didn’t know that at that moment, a young white man was sitting in an iconic black church, words of love and liberation washing over him, calculating just the right time to open fire on people whose only crime was being black in America.
It was a lynching.
As of this writing, my Facebook post had 162 likes. Many of them came in after the events in Charleston. I’m grateful for every one of those likes, because I have a hard time believing it’s a beautiful time to be alive. I’m so tired of the violence that I can scarcely even muster the energy to be outraged.
And if I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, I can only imagine what African-American friends and colleagues are feeling. A friend shared that her church is having a meeting to see about hiring a security guard, which they would share with the church across the street. I don’t need to tell you the racial makeup of those congregations.
162 people clicked a button in agreement that it’s a beautiful time to be alive., which is such a small thing, but I needed every one of those affirmation.
It’s a heavy time in the world.
Israel and Palestine… please let the cease fire hold.
Ukraine—still unstable, and I have a personal stake in this.
There are no Christians left in Mosul, Iraq for the first time in almost 2,000 years.
The children keep coming from central America, fleeing a level of violence and lawlessness (or even just poverty) we can scarcely imagine.
And those little Nigerian girls are still missing.
The globalization of the news means it all appears right in my blue room. I wouldn’t have it any other way. As David Wilcox sings, “there’s no ‘far away.'”
So like many of you, I do what I can, and I take my signs of hope and joy where I can get them. It is a privileged thing to be able to do that, to turn one’s attention elsewhere for a while. But I must. We must. Otherwise it’s too overwhelming.
So in that spirit, here are three things that brought some awesomeness to my life this week—Internet edition:
Serving communion to one of our members who’s in a nursing home. She wanted the five of us gathered to sing “On Eagle’s Wings”. We didn’t know the words, but no problem: Safari on the iPhone to the rescue. Best communion I’ve attended in a long time.
The discovery of Moms RUN This Town, a running club whose local chapter has a Facebook page. After 3 years of running solo and only occasionally with friends because of my crazy schedule, I now have access to groups of people in the neighborhood running early and late and fast and slow and everything in between.
This guy. Just this guy. You’re going to want to fast forward, but don’t. Just let it emerge.
We’re officially in a season in the Dana household when there is so much going on it’s actually comical. My Lenten discipline of “doing nothing extra” could not come at a better time… though it’s often hard to figure out what’s “extra,” and even when one separates the wheat from the chaff, there is still more to do than time to do it.
So here’s a quick Friday Link Love. Maybe like me you need a little palate cleanser between must-do tasks. Hope these bring a little joy and inspiration.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time will probably make a much smaller splash than Evans’s book even though it is one of the most helpful and well-conceived books on spirituality I’ve ever read.
In the aftermath of a major disaster, it’s hard for aid workers to know what’s happening on the ground, and to direct resources where they are needed most. That’s when text messaging and social media can help. By analyzing tweets and other snippets, it’s possible to see trends–say, where people are trapped, or where there are water shortages–and do something about them.
The issue is the analysis part, says Lukas Biewald, CEO of CrowdFlower, a San Francisco company that finds people online willing to do “micro tasks” (normally for commercial purposes). One, you’ve got a huge amount of data to sift through, and not a lot of time. And two, all the text might be in a language–or filled with local references–that you don’t understand. You need some way of crunching it quickly, using people who aren’t put off by colloquial or foreign terms.
Patrick Meier, director of social innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute, and a member of a group called the Digital Humanitarian Network, says crowdsourcing can help. Following last December’s Typhoon Pablo, in the Philippines, DHN identified 20,000 relevant tweets, and then called on CrowdFlower to find volunteers to make the first assessment. The groups identified, one, messages with links to photos and video, and, two, messages that referred to damage that could be geo-tagged. From about 100 tweets, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) could then build a map plotting damaged houses and bridges, flooding, and so on.
A Presbyterian minister who helped resolve bloody conflicts in Sudan reflects on his long career of peacemaking in America and Africa.
Bill Lowrey is a friend and colleague here in the greater DC area an amazing inspiration. I love that Faith and Leadership saw fit to feature him on their site. People who think that Christianity is nothing but hate and intolerance need to read about this fine man who has quietly and humbly devoted his life to peace and justice.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
August 26, 2012
Parables and Pop Culture: The Gospel and The Hunger Games
Armored in Grace
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.
Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
* * *
This week we learned of yet another act of gun violence, this time in New York City near the Empire State Building. This, after other terrible incidents in Aurora, Colorado, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, Texas A&M University, and others. The humor website The Onion captured it well in a headline from Friday:
Nation Celebrates Full Week Without Deadly Mass Shooting
UPDATE: Never Mind
It’s an example of satire that isn’t necessarily funny, but instead is pointed as it illustrates a deeper truth in our world. It’s been an unusally grisly summer for such acts.
There is a heaviness in the air. The election doesn’t help, with still more heated rhetoric coming our way, along with frenzied reporting over the latest gaffes, and all-around conduct unbecoming of those seeking to hold political office.
Meanwhile Tropical Storm Isaac pounded Haiti yesterday, a country in which thousands of people are still living in tents after the deadly earthquake some three years ago.
And of course, we remain very concerned about little Jacob as he continues to fight his battle with ALD.
It is very easy to lose heart.
Paul comes along in the midst of this and frames the world he lived in, and the world we live in now, as a cosmic battle between good and evil.
How are we to respond?
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
In last week’s sermon I gave a summary of The Hunger Games and talked about how the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to fight in place of her sister Prim. The male tribute from district 12 is a boy Katniss’s age named Peeta Mellark. There is a conversation between Kat and Peeta as they prepare to enter the arena the next day. Peeta says, Whatever happens tomorrow, even if I die, I want to die as myself. I don’t want the Capitol to take that away from me. I won’t let them turn me into something I am not.
Katniss doesn’t understand: What difference does it make if you’re dead either way? It seems foolish to care about such things.
But Peeta knows: in dark times, we may not prevail, but we can remain faithful to the values and principles that we hold dear. We can keep the faith. Who will we be in this world, as we seek to serve God and love as Christ loved? That is the question. As Viktor Frankl realized in the death camps of the Holocaust: “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Paul would approve of this impulse of Peeta, and of Viktor Frankl. The battle is on, Paul writes, and so we must clothe ourselves with the things of God:
The belt of truth;
the breastplate of righteousness;
the helmet of salvation;
and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Note that the only offensive weapon is the word of God. You may have heard of “fight or flight.” But the armor of God equips us for a third task, which is to freeze: to stand with integrity and courage, where we are. We are not meant to be on the attack. We are not people of destruction. We are people of the Word, and the Word is love.
Now, Katniss says she doesn’t understand Peeta’s desire to die “as himself.” But her behavior shows that she does understand, very well.
Katniss befriends a fellow tribute named Rue. Rue is young, like Prim. She is not tough or strong—an alliance with her is not a tremendous asset to Katniss. But Rue is clever and her heart is true, and she and Kat are able to gain a couple of advantages over the others… but then, sadly, Rue loses her life.
And something breaks open in Katniss.
Remember that the Hunger Games is a reality show. Everything the tributes do in the arena is broadcast for the entire country to see. Katniss knows that a hovercraft will be along soon to pick up Rue’s body and remove it from the arena. Katniss feels moved to do something to acknowledge her friend but she knows she doesn’t have much time. She must show the Capitol that there is a part of her that they cannot control.
And so she gathers white flowers and places them around Rue’s head, in her arms, around the body. She does this in memory of her friend, in recognition of her dignity, her worth, not just as a pawn in the Capitol’s power games, but as a human being. She does this so everyone will see, and know.
There is a dignity that can never be taken away.
The interesting thing about the book is that it’s told from Katniss’s point of view and hers alone. She does not know what effect her honoring of Rue might have, if any. What the movie makes clear, however, is that her actions inspire the people of Rue’s district to rise up. A revolution is beginning that will unfold over the three books in the Hunger Games trilogy. And it begins with an act of goodness and grace, in which Katniss refuses to be a pawn.
Now here’s what’s brilliant about Paul’s words. He gives us these robust images of armor:
And we might picture chain mail, a suit of steel like a medieval knight. Or maybe kevlar. Something bulletproof. But then there’s this reversal: The armor of God is made of…
Which turns out to pretty thin armor. When you’re wearing righteousness, truth, peace, faith, you still feel the pain of the world. You still hurt when others hurt. To clothes ourselves with the things of God does not protect us from grief. But it gives us strength to stand in faith. It gives us hope and courage to fight another day.
I was with a group of clergy women a few weeks ago, leading them in a retreat. We spent some time talking about the anxiety that pervades so much of our culture. As an illustration of this, we created a large collage using newspapers and magazines. The headlines we read, the images we ingest—so many of them convey this anxiety: We’re not thin enough. We’re not young enough. We’re not rich enough. We don’t have enough stuff.
Then we shared the story together of the days following 9/11 in New York. A writer named Sally Schneider describes the experience of wandering the deserted and devastated streets, and finding a restaurant open. It was Mario Batali’s Italian restaurant. Mario himself said, “Yes, we’re open,” and welcomed them in. There was something so comforting in the food people shared in that place—as if life was normal, somehow. It almost felt defiant… like Katniss decorating the body of an “expendable” tribute with flowers.
Sally described the experience later to a friend—what was it about that meal that made it so significant?—and her friend said, “Of course. We fight back with beauty.”
And so this group of clergy women considered how we fight back against the anxiety, against the despair, against the darkness, with beauty and righteousness and truth, all those things Paul wrote about. And we tore pieces of colored paper and wrote acts of beauty on them and pasted them on that board. And the anxiety still poked through but a new picture began to emerge, a crazy quilt of beauty.
That is our task…
to fight back with beauty.
to fight back with righteousness.
to fight back with peace, and grace, and truth.
May we do so, armed only with the Word of God… the Word which is Love. Amen.
A heart of stone... the cover of our bulletin on Sunday.
Here’s what I preached on Sunday. It is inadequate for the occasion, but it is something.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
March 25, 2012
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Jeremiah 31:31-34: The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
My girls came bounding off the bus Tuesday afternoon, full of news. A sixth grade boy had been walking to school and had been stopped by a man driving a white van. The man had tried to get the boy to get into the van. The boy had refused, and run all the way to school. Police were called; procedures put into motion. “We’re going to have a lockdown drill on Thursday!” the girls clapped. They were concerned for the boy and a little wary, but mainly they were excited about a break in the monotony of the school day.
I was so grateful for their innocence — that they say something so potentially serious as a festive occasion and not one for fear.
But the other side of me, the side of me who’s seen too much, who had that innocence taken away long ago simply by living in the world for four decades, sucked in her breath.
My oh my, we live in a fallen creation.
We live in what our Presbyterian Statement of Faith calls a “broken and fearful world.”
One of my disciplines this Lent—in addition to fasting from dessert, fourteen more days but who’s counting—is to look around me to try to find just one scene of beauty: each day, to find one thing that takes my breath away that I might have missed if I hadn’t been looking, really looking for it.
I need that discipline right now. I need to look at the world in that way. I need to be a detective for beauty, a sleuth for grace. Because right now the world is a dead black boy in Florida and mean Internet comments and a law student from Georgetown who was called a prostitute for having an opinion. The world is protesters slaughtered in Syria and dead Jewish children in Paris and a soldier gone mad in Afghanistan.
I think Jeremiah would understand the need for some beauty. Jeremiah’s prophetic words were uttered in a time of crisis: Jerusalem has been destroyed by a foreign power; the people of Israel have been deported. Most of the book contains a harsh judgment on the leadership, who have not been faithful to God by maintaining justice and obedience. Exile is seen as a punishment for this failure.
The world is a mess, says Jeremiah. But let me be more specific: we have made it so.
And then comes chapters 30 and 31, right in the middle of the book, two luminous chapters called the Book of Comfort. That’s where we are today, nestled in that comfort, and it comes just in the nick of time.
The days are surely coming… I will make a new covenant.
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Just one chapter later, we are told that Jeremiah responds to these words, personally and powerfully, by buying a field at Anathoth. This field, it should be said, was occupied by a foreign power; it had fallen to the Babylonians. And yet Jeremiah stakes his claim on that land. The time will come when this land will be God’s again, and I will plant and build here, he says, and in so doing, he claims that covenant hope that God expresses in today’s passage. Jeremiah’s purchase of the land is more than a prophetic move; it is an act of daring, reckless hope.
Friday I took a trip downtown to see the cherry blossoms at their peak. As I walked around the Tidal Basin, I happened upon the Martin Luther King memorial. Amid the beauty of cherry blossoms floating down from the trees like pink snowflakes, and branches dipping into the water, the King memorial offered a different kind of beauty, a stark, stony beauty.
King of course was a prophet, as surely as Jeremiah was a prophet. He described the world that is not yet ours, but could be. Should be. Will be. And as I read the various quotes etched in stone on the inscription wall, I couldn’t help but see the sweet face of Trayvon Martin.
“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class…”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The fate of Trayvon Martin affects us. Whatever investigation takes place—and an investigation is sorely needed—whatever truth comes out, whatever happens next—his death diminishes us.
We will never know what a grown-up Trayvon Martin might have contributed to his family and his community and the world. He was an A and B student who according to his teachers “majored in cheerfulness,” who had no criminal record and was studying to be an aviation engineer. He wanted to fly.
He is gone. And it falls to us then, the living, to say a reckless YES to the covenant God describes and promises, here in the Book of Comfort. Even if the world God describes seems so far from our own, we are called to step out in faith. The new covenant God promises Jeremiah hasn’t happened yet. The restoration has yet to occur, and God is speaking in the future tense. Here is what I will do, God says.
The when is not clear. But God’s intention certainly is.
There have been many versions of the covenant before this in scripture: covenants to Noah and Abraham, and covenants handed down to Moses in the Ten Commandments. But here there is a shift. The covenant will not be spoken to patriarchs, nor will it etched on stone tablets. It will be written on human hearts. Our hearts. Hearts that don’t just weep at the death of an unarmed black boy, but who work for a world where such a tragedy is a thing of the past.
In a moment, we will hear from John Dearie, a board member of the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness.
That sounds impossible. End homelessness? It seems laughable in its audacity. Surely the problem is too big, the problem is too complicated, the problem is too expensive. If there were a way to end homelessness, we’d have done it by now.
But I invite you to listen with the ear of Jeremiah:
Jeremiah, who in the midst of the exile of his people said, “God is not finished with us yet.”
Jeremiah who saw the despair and the destruction all around him and dared to announce that there is still hope.
Jeremiah, who wrote 50 chapters of prophetic judgment but had the good sense to include 2 chapters of comfort. But the comfort doesn’t say everything’s going to be OK, that God’s going to swoop in and fix everything. The comfort comes in the form of a new heart beating in our chests, a heart that beats for justice and hope and abundant life for everyone. Everyone.
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”