Call to Arms – Arm in Arm – After Ferguson

Christians – especially those of you who are white, asian-american, in my particular church family, my wider church family, or all those who are often in a position of protection and relative privilege when it comes to law enforcement in our country – I am writing this to you. I believe most of us are trying to sort through what is happening in MO and our nation with the best of intentions, hoping to clearly see the facts and get down to what is fair and right and true. And I get this work, and at some level acknowledge sifting through the details may be helpful. But because so much more is going on right now, and I believe that we need to be in this together at a deeper level as the church, and because I’ve been asked why this is such a big deal – I want to point us in another place.

As a pastor, mother, human being – I am sickened by what our country is now experiencing in the wake of the #FergusonDecision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson. And I am not right now interested in going through the ME reports, the angle of bullets, or the witness reports – I am not even interested in parsing out how it happens that an extraordinary pre-trial through the grand jury went down that resulted in not even indicting an officer that killed an unarmed teenager in the street.
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Losing is Good News ?!?

I preached this past weekend on the Matthew lesson from the lectionary that our church has been working through. There were many reflections and interesting thoughts that I found while researching and ruminating to prepare for this message, but a couple things have stood out to me since the “a-ha”, Holy Spirit just hit me on the head, moment hit me near the end of my preparation last weekend:

– the cross, which of course stands for suffering and death, is at the heart (or the crux) of Christian faith
– we, and by we I mean mostly me, often avoid this central truth, ’cause its kind of a downer, a tricky topic, and frankly just doesn’t sit that comfortably next to our to- do lists and church obligations we compile
– the fact that death and suffering exist in our frail human world is something that we pretend isn’t real; Martin Luther says the good news of the cross is that it tells the truth about suffering and death to us, and so frees us from illusion. So the cross (or a theology of the cross) doesn’t bless or intend death, but is able to redeem even the worst experiences, the deepest suffering, b/c of what Christ endured.
– That reality, that death (both “big,” final death and “little,” difficult deaths to self) is truly all around us, all the time, is then somehow – GOOD NEWS! Crazy, right? Death, when set in its appropriate, honest, and redeemed light, is good news. It frees us/me up to embrace life, even when we are in the little and the not so little deaths, because we know it is going toward something else. It is headed toward life.
– So we just have to follow. I mean its hard, its difficult, it takes practice, requires help from friends, and necessitates discipline to follow – but that is how it is possible that “through losing our life we find LIFE.” By seeing the truth of the cross, accepting what Christ did with death, and following Him through it, nothing can (finally, at the end of the story), touch us.
– I am convinced that for most of our lives, for both Christians and non-Christ followers, the struggle is usually in the details of this reality. In other words, its in the remembering that death is true, and all around us, but that we will still get through this, and the three days in the ground never hold God and they never hold us. It is in the holding each other’s hands when we are in the dark, groping for the light, recalling where we are – after the season in the tomb. The struggle is in seeing other people proclaim Christ and then live in that awkward place of acknowledging death to self and then still keeping it together – seeing a community that models the freedom, grace, and long vision that those who follow Christ are empowered to steward.
– All those details, they aren’t really details as much as lifetimes of understanding who God is, where God is when things are dark, and where the hands of others are that reach out to us – or don’t – during our own times in the tomb buried in the cold ground.

Somehow, this mystery that losing is winning, and that death is life – is good news. Good news that doesn’t make any sense outside of what Christ did on the cross. And that doesn’t make much sense without tangible examples being lived out in front of us, as the expression of Christ followers who get this radical, upside down world kind of living. Otherwise it seems like someone is telling you to go to the back of the line while they stay up front. Or stay up on the cross of suffering, b/c that is your cross to bear so I am free to abuse you. But Christ went on the cross for us – and showed us the truth – about oppression, death, and the need to die to our own self for others. That truth somehow seems fresh to me today, renewed and interesting, as if it weren’t the most basic tenet of the Christian faith. :) And I am grateful. And I am in awe that it is such Good News. And I can hold my “little deaths to self” tonight loosely, even gratefully, as I realize this truth again.

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History as Sacred Ground

I’ve been reading, listening to, and researching a lot of stories this last year. I am working with our regional office to prepare for our 125th Anniversary Celebration at the end of April, and much of my role relates to compiling and telling the stories of our history. I’ve conducted countless hours of video interviews, gotten photos and old church bulletins sent in, and heard both funny and tearful tales of families, communities, congregations and individuals on their journies to know and follow Christ.

This work of gathering and telling stories, of counting struggle and victory and faithfulness – this work is holy work. This work beckons me to walk on sacred ground.

It is sacred ground that I get to walk over when I am privileged to hear others’ stories of how God has led our church for 125 years, through sacrifice and wisdom and putting others before personal gain. It is sacred ground that I am invited to travel when I walk alongside the memories of others, witnessing examples of miracles, belonging, and also sometimes oppression and exclusion. I have heard how little churches stood with open hands at the train stop, waiting for new immigrants; how vulnerable children and the elderly were served by early ministries established not out of abundant finances, but rock-solid conviction; how strategic committees were founded to help deal with geographic, ethnic and gender diversity as it spread across the country and across the church. As one interviewee put it, “Just by forming a strategic group, this showed that the church placed a high value on diversity – we didn’t always get it right, but we highly valued it.”

That is what is echoing in my ears over these past few months – stories of unbelievable and amazing people, everyday women and men, who had a high value on following Christ. We didn’t always get it right, we are still growing and learning, but that whole story, the good and the difficult, keep pointing us deeper, revealing the power of faithful following and faithful leading.

The solid ground underneath this whole story is, of course, God’s faithfulness that moved a church from its weaknesses and blind spots, its sometimes ethnic enclaves or comfort traps, to jump into daring and courageous ministry time after time. I find places where we must lament what has gone wrong, when the power to tell a story or to name who is in and who is out was not used to build up the body of Christ, but was instead used to harm. I also find places to celebrate, so many places rich with commitments that surpass personal or shallow weaknesses, places that model how we can continue to repair and restore brokenness through depending on God’s work among and through us. Pain in the past, as well as joy in the journey, can be transformed and can be named, given respect, and re-plowed into the ground where it strengthens and informs our roots into the present. Since the mid-19th century, we have been gifted stories of how God brought together people who would share these stories with each other – in places like Galesburg and Princeton Illinois, and in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, throughout Indiana and the city of Chicago, in Rockford and Milwaukee – and hundreds of other places, to be the church. These early faithful worked out how to follow God together, how to deal with language and leadership transitions, how to serve together, how to adapt, how to stay true to the Good News, how to do faithful mission in community.

And the story still continues, still builds, still is being written. But our history, the sacred ground that we have already traveled, whether we are aware of it or not, is deeply fertile soil, a repository of miracles and shared suffering and sacrifice that has all been enabled by God’s great faithfulness and leading. Perhaps our job in the present, and in the future, is to walk slowly, carefully, and with joy over that sacred ground. Maybe our faithfulness includes taking the time to listen and to honor the stories that built this church. We may say “thank you,” with our time, our words, our actions, and our continued commitments to the same calling from God that our history is founded on. And we may rejoice in God’s faithfulness from the beginning – and until the end. What a privileged, holy work this is for us all.

“He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6) Amen.

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