Beautiful Ahmaud

By now, many of you will have heard about and seen the video of the unconscionable killing of Ahmaud Arbery. He, a 25-year-old black male, was out jogging when he was chased down by two white males in a truck and herded like an animal before being senselessly shot and killed.

I was aghast when I heard he was killed February 23. Why had we not heard about this yet? It makes me nauseas to think that it took 74 days and a horrific video of beautiful Ahmaud’s muscular frame collapsing on the concrete to get the wheels of justice turning.

And I said “beautiful” on purpose. Wasn’t he beautiful? I must have stared at his picture 100 times in the last three days. The warm and welcoming smile, those eyes that shine like a man made in the image of God.

When I saw the video, I immediately started thinking about my friend, Dante, a world-class athlete who played football at Clemson University. Dante is a burgeoning theologian, a brilliant poet, and is the proudest dad of his precious, young son. Just last year he was harassed by an older white man who was talking smack to him from his porch. The man didn’t want Dante walking in “his” neighborhood, as if anyone has the right to claim a neighborhood to himself. Dante filmed the exchange and I’ve seen it. It was bone-chilling. Pure evil.

When I saw the video, I thought about Durward, my friend of over 20 years. Durward has one of the smoothest voices I’ve ever heard. Listening to him play piano and sing the old hymns of the church moves me to tears every time. How can so much spiritual heritage live in one voice? And yet it does. Yesterday Durward said, “I’m beginning to feel like an endangered species.” It broke my heart. And it broke God’s, too.

When I saw the video, I thought about Ken, my friend from church. Ken might be one of the most encouraging and vivacious men I’ve ever been around. He prays for me and demands that when I preach, I do it with everything in my being. He always tells me he’s got my back, and I know he does. We go and get lunch and talk sports and church and family and spur each other on toward holiness. Ken loves to go for a run early in the morning or late at night. It’s one of those things that brings him to life. But his wife often pleads with him not to go. Maybe after seeing the video of Ahmaud you could understand why?

I have never had someone taunt me from their porch and tell me I wasn’t welcome in “their” neighborhood. I have never felt endangered in America because of my skin color. I have never had my wife beg me to not go on a jog around the neighborhood.

Dante, I’m so very sorry. I grieve with you. I love you. I stand with you.

Durward, I’m so very sorry. I grieve with you. I love you. I stand with you.

Ken, I’m so very sorry. I grieve with you. I love you. I stand with you.

For all my sisters and brothers, I’m so very sorry. I’m not here trying to be a hero. I’m just here to say I’m sorry if you’ve experienced any or all of the above. Some of you will have experienced all of it and so much more. I grieve with you. I love you. I stand with you. And with all my heart, I’ll be a part of the army of people who come together to do whatever it takes.

I go back to beautiful Ahmaud. Because I think it all turns on our ability to see the beauty in the sheer existence of another person. Racism is the perverse offspring of a pair of eyes and a hardened heart that have come together in their refusal to acknowledge the beauty in another person. A person that’s made in the Image of God.

Tonight, as I’m getting ready for bed, my soul is in travail and I’m calling on Jesus. I’m calling on Jesus because he knows what it is to have his darkened flesh battered and beaten and brutalized. Isaiah the prophet, peering into the future, strained to say these words:

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”

That’s why I’m calling on Jesus. Because he knows.

So, Lord Jesus, help us. Forgive us. Heal us. Restore us. Re-train us in beauty. And lead us to that Day when every nation, tribe, tongue and people group gather joyfully and peaceably around your throne. Amen.

“It makes me angry…”

“It makes me angry.”

Slicing through our brooding bedroom darkness, those were the first words out of my mouth at 5 a.m today. Lisa was awake, I just knew it, though she had not spoken. After 15 years, I’m pretty sure I can just sense when she’s awake. So, she heard me, but she instinctually knew to leave some space for my venting. She slid her hand over and gently held mine while I went on.

“It makes me angry that…” I now got specific, and like a skilled southern preacher who starts riffing, that was my refrain. “It makes me angry that…” By this point, I had hopelessly broken into a kind of prayer that was pulsating with pathos and pain.

Some of you by now will be sure I have lost my mind. Some of you will have started feeling sorry for my wife and will start organizing meals and be thinking about how you might support her in days to come. “Who starts their day by naming their anger out loud? In the darkness? Sheesh!”

But this was actually a really good moment for me, and Lisa knew it. I have long suffered from an invisible-but-very-insidious condition that I might call “Christian Niceness,” a malady that makes you think you have to bury all the “bad” emotions. There is a biblical and theological house of cards that must be built to maintain this position, but we’ve figured out how to build it.

It goes something like this: The God who is good only deserves the “good” stuff, the thanksgiving prayers, the shouts of praise, the soaring doxologies that arise from soul-restoring Sabbaths and the slow Saturdays when we have not a care in the world. The myth of Christian Niceness is built on the faulty assumption that the God who once made the heavens and the earth is now somehow fragile (he must be getting older, right?), needing to be protected from all the contingencies and complexities of the human condition. This approach treats God as if he’s already done his hard work and is sliding into a slow retirement from the swirl of life.

But the psalmists of ancient Israel didn’t see God as fragile. They cracked open their hearts and poured out of their mouths the full spectrum of their emotions. Often pulsing with fury and exasperation, these words are enough to make the average believer blush.

“With my voice I cry out to the LORD…I pour out my complaint before him…”
Psalm 142:1-2

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 3 Consider and answer me, O LORD my God.
Psalm 13:1-3a

The psalmists weren’t afraid. And neither was St. Paul who instructed the Ephesian believers to “be angry, yet do not sin.” Be angry!? Are you serious? Paul says if you’ve been wounded, you need to feel your way around the wound. If you’ve been hurt, don’t bury it. That sounds like an irresponsible thing for an apostle to command, but is it? Not at all, for Paul knows that if the anger is ignored and buried, it will bleed into everything else that you touch, everything else that matters.

So, I took the risk of voicing my anger early this morning. And Lisa joined me, praying peace into me as I released it. By the end of the time, I was finding space in my soul to release blessing and grace and forgiveness.

And do you know what happened? An hour later, our three kids stumbled downstairs into the kitchen for breakfast. We packed school lunches and double-checked homework assignments and searched high and low for socks and shoes. The morning rush out the door to school is often harried and frenetic, as any parent of young kids can tell you. But this morning we all laughed uproariously. We were playful and childlike and somehow un-rushed. I’m not exaggerating for effect. Things were different. And I think things were different because *I* was different.

Sisters and brothers, God is not old and fragile and scared. God is not afraid of your raw and unfiltered feelings. There are no “bad emotions” in the presence of God. The God of the ages is as young and scrappy as he’s ever been, and he’s ready to wrestle with you through your anger so that you can find your way into wholeness of soul. So take the risk. Tell him what you feel. Go for it.

The Meaning Beyond Absurdity

 

 

In 1975, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked how he would describe God. In great rabbinic simplicity, Heschel said, “God is the meaning beyond absurdity.”

The meaning. Beyond absurdity.

It doesn’t take much discernment to see that absurdity in life is a given. Think about the horrors of Auschwitz and the desecration of Dachau. Think about the heartbroken Syrian and Iraqi refugees living in the Beqaa Valley. Think about our impoverished Central American sisters and brothers who are aching for home. Think about all the abortions, and all the starving children with bloated bellies, and all the elderly bereft. The pain cuts deep.

Yes, life can be absurd, and Christians aren’t afraid to say it. In fact, every year saints all over the world block the better part of a week to name the darkness. Holy Week is the reminder that there will be stretches of life that are full of betrayal and denial, suffering and shame, death and the grave. But Holy Week is not some generic statement that life is hard and so we ought to just deal with it. Holy Week is the reminder that God-in-Christ cares, that he refuses to be distant and aloof, that he runs into the very worst of the absurdity himself.

Jesus had dull nails driven through his wrists. They jammed a crown of thorns into his brow and mockingly threw a purple robe on his back. “Some king you must be!” they taunted. Just hours before, Jesus was washing his disciples’ feet, but now his own feet have been struck a debilitating blow. He hung naked on the cross in front of the crowds as Judas walked down Golgotha with an empty soul and thirty pieces of silver. Absurdity, absurdity, Jesus knows absurdity.

But Rabbi Heschel was right. Life isn’t just absurd. As Heschel reminds us, “God is the meaning…” Which is to say, we are not nihilists. The world is not fatalistically flawed and godlessly spinning its way to destruction. As Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” We see it every day as the sun rises and light “flames out, like shining from shook foil.” Every morning is an eruption of mercy and meaning. Birds are chirping their choruses and carols. Little children are still singing and dancing and asking for nighttime stories to be read to them. Hatred is still bowing low in the presence of love. Friendship is still the true sign of how wealthy a person is. There is meaning because we live in a world enchanted by God’s Holy Spirit.

But there can only be meaning because Jesus was plunged into the abyss of absurdity. He took the full spectrum of human rebellion and the pain and absurdity of the world into his body—into the very depths of his being—and was crushed by it. And on this Holy Saturday we are not in a hurry to race ahead to Sunday. We sit patiently and feel something of that crushing.

But Christians will get up tomorrow morning with a shout because on the third day, his Father raised him to life so that he stands beyond the absurdity and finality of death. And this is precisely why Jesus is still being talked about all these years later. This is precisely why billions of people the world over have worshipped and given their lives to him. Because his resurrection has once-and-for-all secured the meaning beyond absurdity.

 

Permission to live the most difficult days…

One of my friends is walking through the Valley of the Shadow. As I was listening to him share his heart this morning, and when the appropriate amount of silence had settled over us, this came out of me:

“You have permission to live the most difficult days of your life in the safety of our presence.”

That’s a summary of Christian community. We all need that permission from each other, permission to *be where we are*.

Some folks understand “faith” to be a rugged shaking-off-of our feelings. Some people have been taught that “faith” means you ignore the painful realities in favor of a grit-your-teeth positivity. No, sir.

The life of faith is the life where the saints learn to play the long game with each other. If we do it right, the seasons of bottoming out in grief and overwhelming despair do not have to be seen as final, but can be seen as stops along the way.

Impetuous Peter wobbled in his faith and denied he ever even knew Jesus, but he didn’t stay there. He grew into the man on whose back the Church would ride. Thomas didn’t always do it right either. Neither did Mary Magdalene. And neither will you and I.

So let’s sign up for the long game with each other. Let’s covenant to be companions as we pass through the Valley of the Shadow. Let’s give each other permission to live the most difficult days of your lives in the safety of each other’s presence. And let’s do it until we’re able to look back and see the difficulties swallowed up by God’s deliverance.

 

Remembering Eugene Peterson

The news has spread throughout the land and many of the tribes of God’s people are in mourning today: Eugene Hoiland Peterson has entered his rest. The Pastor has completed his pilgrimage. He was nearing his 86th birthday, and his days in the land of the living numbered 31,397.

In December 2008, I wrote my first letter to Eugene after reading his book, The Contemplative Pastor. I was a 26-year-old pastor serving in a church that was walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but something about Eugene’s writing awakened hope in me that we could find our way back to the quiet waters. I had never met Eugene before I sent that letter and, frankly, he had no reason to write me back. He was 76 and could have ridden off into the sunset of the retirement he had earned. Nobody would have blamed him, not even I. But to my great surprise, he wrote back and invited me to their home in Montana for a few days of conversation and prayer. Since then, I’ve made seven trips to be with Eugene and Jan, their kindness making possible a friendship for which I’ll be eternally grateful.

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