Welcome to the pulpit, Paula Spugnardi!
By Derek Penwell
Power. It always comes back to power:
- Who has it and who doesn’t.
- What those who have it will do or fail to do with it.
- What those who have it are willing to do to keep hold of it.
- And on whose behalf it will be used.
Government, which is preoccupied with the strategic application of power, must continually have an answer about how and on behalf of whom power will be used.
At its worst, government exercises its power to conquer and subdue those it feels threatened by. Whether it’s the North Koreans or undocumented immigrants trying to support their families (or, God have mercy, just to keep them together), whether it’s the Iranians or African Americans sitting in Starbucks waiting on a friend, whether it’s the Syrian government or the refugees that government makes by the hundreds of thousands, or whether it’s ISIS or trans kids who just want to go to the bathroom in peace (or any kid who wants to go to school without the fear of being shot), the government has a habit of employing the power at its disposal to smack down any perceived threats.
At its worst, the military, the justice system, ICE, militarized law enforcement, private prisons are tools the government uses to beat back those threats.
But, you see, saying it that way keeps the discussion abstract. The thing of it is, those tools don’t use power abstractly; they use it on real people—the poor and the dispossessed, the marginalized and outcast, the voiceless and the vulnerable. To beat back a threat, in other words, is most often an exercise in beating down a human being.
At its best, government uses its power to work for and protect those who lackpower. At its best, government has the ability to defend the poor and the dispossessed, the marginalized and outcast, the voiceless and the vulnerable.
If you have power, you can either use it to safeguard the interests of the rich and powerful or advance the interests of the poor and powerless. If you happen to follow Jesus (a man executed by the state as a threat to the interests of the rich and powerful), as most of our politicians in Frankfort claim to do, you can’t pursue the former at the expense of the latter and still believe Jesus is smiling down on you.
To the Christians in Frankfort: You can’t beat people down in the name of the one who gave his life lifting people up.
I didn’t write the book; I’m just telling you what’s in it.
So why does Jesus perform his protest in the way most likely to make his opponents want to destroy him? Why not just do his good work without making waves?
Do you recognize those questions? Those are the kinds of questions I learned as a middle class suburban kid to ask of protesters when they did something outrageous. Those are the kinds of questions I might have asked of Colin Kaepernick: “Why protest in such a public and controversial way?” Or Black Lives Matter: “Why not just protest in a less confrontational way?” Or the Poor Peoples Campaign: “Is it necessary to be so disruptive?” Or the Parkland young people: “Can’t you just grieve without getting all political?”
But the problem with those questions is that they assume that everything is basically all right, and that what is needed isn’t a radical dismantling of an unjust system, but a few cosmetic tweaks. Because if we take seriously the public testimony of the marginalized and the vulnerable, we have to come to terms with the fact that we’ve participated in systems that by their very nature protect the interests of the powerful at the expense of the powerless."
I think Jesus prays that his disciples will be sanctified in truth, not as a way of 'taking them out of the world,' but as a way of embracing the world in which they live—not the world they imagine God should surely want if God were paying attention to the way things are currently situated. The disciples are looking for a world where everything turns out well for the good guys, a world where it doesn’t cost anything to follow Jesus.
But according to Jesus, this world is the one we’ve got—and God wants to save it, not the one we think is worth saving. This one . . . in all its messiness and violence and pettiness, in all of its craven sneaking around and brazen wantonness. This is the world dying for the truth.
Following Jesus is scary because, according to Acts, God moves us to go to 'even the Gentiles,' to those people who might not look like us or talk like us or love like us or dress like us, and invite them to sit around God’s table, the same one that so many us were taught was reserved for people like us.
Following Jesus is scary because it asks us to live out the story about how God has shown us a vision of a new world, where the word “even” is stricken from the lexicon—a world where everyone’s welcome, without regard to their their race, their immigration status, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, or their bank account.
Following Jesus is about confronting our fear of 'those people,' and learning to love the people God loves. And, in case there was any question, God loves everyone—even the people who seem unlovable by the standards of polite society.
Those who trump up fear are at odds with God, whose primary action and identity is love. Preachers preach. Engineers engineer. Doctors doctor. God loves. Consequently, sowing fear against those who appear different is an act in direct opposition to God.
John says, “We love because God first loved us.” The way we typically read that passage is as an exhortation: “God loved us; therefore, we ought to also love others.”
But the older I get, the more convinced I am that it’s not an exhortation but a description: “God loved us; therefore, we are now capable of loving . . . where before we were incapable, bound up in our fear of losing our place to someone else.”
It’s not enough to avoid hypocrisy by acting in congruence with our words—that is, it’s not enough just to be who we say we are. Realistically, who would ever argue otherwise? I mean, after all, you can say you’re a heartless jerk . . . and actually be a heartless jerk.
Moreover, we’re not just trying to be loving by some broad calculation of human niceness. Rather, we’re trying to be loving in the way Jesus was loving--the one who gave himself up, who laid down his life for those who believed their lives weren’t even worth notice.
Words are important, but they have to have at least a vague relationship to reality; which is to say, the words and the actions have to occupy the same conceptual space.
What people want to know is: Do you actually live this stuff, or do you just talk about it? This Jesus you're always bringing up--do you just believe stuff about him, or do you actually try to live like he asked?
By Derek Penwell
I woke up this morning, and when I turned over and looked at the alarm clock, I knew the night’s sleep would be stolen from me. My mind raced like an undernourished Chihuahua on crack.
I staggered out of bed, and here I sit at the computer.
Life is suffering—at least that’s what the Buddha said is the first noble truth. In other words, if you don’t know anything else, the one thing you know (even if you don’t know it) is that at the heart of the human experience something is goofed up.
My students often get hung up on the word suffering, because to say that life is suffering strikes them as too morose. “I can see the sunrise. I sing songs. I love. Life isn’t all, or even primarily, suffering.”
But by suffering the Buddha didn’t just mean the kind of agony you experience when you hit your finger really hard with a hammer (which I did one summer when I was framing houses during seminary, and holy crap!) or when you find out that your blind date only knows how to talk about conspiracy theories concerning one wold governments run by intelligent cyborgs or the Illuminati … or both.
Dukkha, the Pali word for suffering, means more than just pain; it means stress, or disturbance, or dislocation, or the nagging feeling—often beneath the threshold of awareness—that something isn’t right.
Now, there’s a great deal involved in describing the causes of dukkha that I won’t go into. What I’m interested in at the moment is what we do about it.
The Buddha said that the way we deal with dukkha is most often by avoiding thinking about it. We distract ourselves.
I went to the abbey at Gethsemani some years back. The guest master at the time, Father Damian (before he became abbot) said, “We can give you a gift here that you cannot get almost anywhere else in the world—silence. Enjoy it. For it is from the silence that God speaks. Embrace the silence. Listen for God.”
Like the Buddha, Father Damian said that the reason silence is so rare is that people want to hide from the silence, to distract themselves. That’s why, he continued, the first thing people do when they get into their cars is turn on the radio. It’s why people flip on the television as soon as they walk in the house. They don’t want the silence to find them.
Dukkha confronts us in the silence, reminding us that everything is not as it should be. We grasp foolishly for that which we cannot possess.
We treat as permanent that which is fleeting—and when it disappears or dies, we suffer.
We deceive ourselves about who we are, about what is valuable, about the nature of the world, and even about the causes and the extent of our travail—and when the silence speaks the truth to us, the suffering surfaces.
Or maybe, as Father Damian suggested, it is God who speaks truth to us in the silence.
If I’m honest, the silence that most frightens me is the one that descends in the night. I wake up, and the silence screams. In the light of day, I have—as, I suspect, do we all—the well-worn methods of distracting myself from having to sit in the presence of the silence.
But at night the silence steals into my room. The habits I’ve cultivated for avoiding silence desert me when the house is dark and everyone lies sleeping, leaving me in the hungry presence of truth. I say “hungry,” because I feel devoured by the truth, as though my life and the defenses of illusion I’ve built seem to vanish in painful bites.
I’m not talking about the terrors of the night, where our senses are heightened and we’re sure that we heard someone trying to move silently through the house, or convinced that the baby has stopped breathing, or worried because we haven’t’ heard the sump pump turn on in quite a while and there’s a heavy storm going on just outside the window …
No. I mean the silence that reveals me to myself:
- Why don’t you take better care … of yourself, of your wife, of your children, of your friends, of your car, of the house? (The list can be endless.)
- Why aren’t you more diligent about living what you say you believe?
- When do you think everyone will finally see what a fraud you are … as a writer, as a professor, as a minister, as a human being? (Again, the list can get rather long.)
- Why are you so afraid of the silence?
But here’s the thing: If God is to be found in the silence, then no matter how uncomfortable, that’s where I need to be. Avoiding the truth doesn’t make it go away; it just makes it that much more unlikely that I’ll recognize it when it confronts me.
There’s no justice, no peace without truth. And if I care anything about the former, I’m going to have to embrace the latter—which means that somewhere along the line, I’m going to have to learn to love the silence.
But those who follow Jesus have been shown a different kind of world, one where the people we feel responsible for aren’t just those we care about, but those who don’t have the resources to care for themselves, where we view our resources not as things we must protect against the hordes of 'others,' but as things we share with strangers, whom we call family.
According to the reign of God Jesus announces, there’s a world out there that, like it or not, we’re partially responsible for helping to shape. The question is: What do we want it to look like?
In raising Jesus from the dead, God made a counter claim to Caesar, reversing the death Caesar dealt.
Easter means that God has declared the inauguration of a new kingdom—a kingdom that prompts us to ask: 'What kind of world would we inhabit if God sat on Caesar’s throne?'
How would our policies on poverty or healthcare look different if God occupied the Oval Office?
What would our teachers’ pensions look like if God lived in the governor’s mansion? What would Sacramento look like if God were in Stephon Clark's backyard that night?
Jesus leads a parade with the offer of a new kind of kingdom—a kingdom where victory is won not with war-horses and the bow, but with a donkey and some palm branches. A new kingdom, built on justice and equity for the downtrodden. A kingdom where people don’t have to live in fear that the state will tear them from their families because they don’t have the right documents, or that they may be struck down in their own backyards by officers of the state while holding nothing more threatening than a cell phone, or that their children must lie awake every night in fear that going to school may be the last thing they ever do.
We beheld his glory, a glory that required us to redefine just what glory is.
It’s easy to tire of the world as it is. The cruelty, the ignorance, the selfishness. We see it reflected in the eyes of those who’re told repeatedly that their lives are a burden society shouldn’t have to bear. We see it in the posture of those who can’t shrink far enough into a corner not to draw the attention of the bullies and the sharks. We see it in the weathered faces of those convinced the only safe place to find shelter on cold nights is on the steps just outside those doors.
Hard to watch for most people. And yet when Jesus talks about being glorified, he’s talking about heading into the midst of the tired, poor, huddled masses—to look straight into the eyes of the death that binds so many to hopelessness.
Are you sure Jesus meant the whole world?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure he did. John 3:16 and stuff.
And that’s where I think the real problem lies. I like the idea of Jesus going the extra mile to snatch me from the drink. But, I mean, come on, there are a lot of other people out there still who love the wrong people, who have the wrong color skin, who live in the wrong part of town, who didn’t have the good sense to be born to citizens of this country, who deal with mental and emotional demons most of us can’t imagine even in our worst nightmares—and too many folks would just as soon not have to make room for them.
Jesus’ love, I thought for many years was my ticket to the party. The fact that I didn’t deserve that ticket was the practical limit of my understanding of divine love. Other people were just going to have to claim their own ticket. I’d help as much as I could. But when it came down to it, you have your salvation, and I have mine.
But if you happen to be one of the people kicked to the curb by the folks in charge, Jesus’ anger down at the Temple may just be what love sounds like.
By Derek Penwell
Last week, I participated in a rally against gun violence, organized by local teachers. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, to hear teachers talk about the terror their students face as they imagine themselves staring down the barrel of a gun was gut wrenching. The cold rain seemed like the perfect weather to speak about the unspeakable.
They asked me to open with prayer. This is what I said:
God of all children, please be there in the midst of this pain. In the midst of the tears, and adrenaline, and stark horror . . . please be there. And more than that, help us to find you there . . . with tears on your cheeks and the blood of your children still on your face. We need to know that you’re here with us, in the thick of it . . . where the vomit and the gore ruin our khakis, and the smell settles into our pores, threatening to become a permanent part of the way the world smells to us.
Please be there, O God. For those students who have risen up against the senseless violence their legislators should have shielded them from. Give them strength and courage to insist on the peace you desire for all your children.
For those parents and friends who feel abandoned by you, please be there in ways that offer if not comfort, then at least the strength to make it through the next few minutes until the next wave hits. Give them also the strength and courage to face the fear and uncertainty, to stand between their children and the darkness that seeks them out.
For the teachers who also feel afraid, and sad, and too often powerless, bear them up to be able to confront the horror that lies in front of them, and give them the resources to be able to transform the memories of evil into stamina and resolve for the fight against gun violence.
And for us. Please be there for the rest of us who struggle to figure out how we’ve come to a point where children must fear armed strangers in the womb of our educational system. Help us to find the words to put to our rage and despair, to find the words to comfort those who need be comforted, to find the words to speak justice and peace to a world bent on filling graves with the bodies of children, to find the words necessary not to meet this violence with more violence.
And to the one who surely grieves most of all, have mercy on us and hear our prayer.
Our cross to bear is a cross—a concession that our willingness to speak up on behalf of those who’ve been oppressed, a concession that our willingness to fight for justice for the powerless for whom justice is always a nice word used by the people in charge to give an excuse for why they’re the only ones fit to be in charge, a concession that our willingness to live like Jesus is a potentially deadly one.
Our cross to bear, like Jesus before us, isn’t just a question of suffering our own private indignities; it’s a question of who we’re willing to suffer indignities for.
The truth of the matter is, what follows our decision to follow Jesus is often much less glorious than we might have thought beforehand. In fact, the very first thing that may be required of us is to stand toe-to-toe against the forces of injustice and evil in the world, out in the wilderness, facing the wild beasts—no celebration, just normal, unremarkable acts that, if we’re faithful, have a chance to change the world.
Indeed, immediately after his time in the wilderness, when Jesus says that 'the kingdom of God has come near,' perhaps what he’s talking about isn’t a nearness that avoids the wild beasts in the wilderness, but a nearness that comes from being compelled to confront them there, precisely because it’s hostile territory—where the powers and principalities are strongest and the victims of those powers need us most.