On Tuesday September 11, 2001, I was on vacation at the New Jersey shore. With my friend Sissy from New York City, I watched the towers fall and then watched as fighter planes and helicopters flew up the coast. On Friday the 14th, we watched Billy Graham preach at the memorial service at the National Cathedral. In between, I was on the phone to my administrative assistant and organist back in Buffalo, because I knew the service we’d planned for Sunday the 16th just wouldn’t be adequate.
And then there was the sermon. I used to have the habit of squeezing out every possible second of shore time, so I wouldn’t leave until Saturday afternoon. I used to joke about the PA Turnpike sermon I’d write in my head on the 8-hour drive back to Buffalo. But 9/11 upset my usual way of planning worship, thinking about scripture readings, and sermon themes. And frankly my own emotions and my own attempts to process what had happened were churning in my head and heart. After driving several hours, I came to the beginning of an outline. I recognized that there were at least three parts to what I believed needed to be said. The first was our need to mourn. I don’t even remember what the order of service ended up being, but I imagine it would have included a psalm of lament.
I also believed there had to be a component of self-reflection and repentance – in no way excusing the actions of terrorists, but trying to understand how policies and actions by our own country could have negatively affected others. It’s a risky thing to do when emotions are running so high. Patriotism can be defined by a “my country right or wrong” stance. But I knew that as people of faith, we had to go beyond pure emotion into courageous soul-searching. Again, I don’t remember what I did. But thinking about it now, I might have taken the story of the prophet Nathan who confronted King David about his misdeeds with Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah and called him to repentance.
I’m a little fuzzy on the third theme, but I believe it was about our response and our actions going forward. Anti-Muslim attacks had already begun. Racist slurs were being bandied about unchallenged. The question arose: how would we, the Church, be a witness to Love in the midst of a national crisis? I know that we attended the open house held by our neighborhood mosque.
And, of course, it was not long after that the congregation and I began our odyssey into interfaith dialogue, which ended up leading me to the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. And now to here, the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Burlingame, where we find ourselves in another national crisis (actually multiple crises) and questions of how the Church can be a faithful witness in the midst of it all.
. . . this week has felt like the week after 9/11
I’ll be honest, for me this week has felt like the week after 9/11. I’ve run the gamut of discouraged, disheartened, resolved, shocked, resigned, angry, afraid, overwhelmed – as I’m sure as many of you have, too. We’ve been experiencing one crisis piled on top of another. We continue to try to negotiate terms with a deadly coronavirus; there are now over 105,000 deaths in the US alone; mask-wearing has become a politicized hot potato. Leaders struggle to deal with both life-threatening health issues and economy-tanking unemployment. Then another Black man dies in police custody, and cities are burning. We knew the pandemic disproportionately affected people of color, and now the ugly scab of racism has been violently ripped off to further expose what has been called “America’s original sin.”
Protests, riots, looting have broken out in cities across the country. Evidence of white outside agitators is making a bad situation worse. And let’s not even mention climate change. The biggest threat we’ve ever faced as a species has been put on the back burner, so to speak.
And it’s Pentecost. It’s one of my favorite holy days because it’s supposed to be very upbeat, giddy almost, celebrating diversity, envisioning the future. symbolized by tongues of fire coming down on the disciples, as the Holy Spirit empowered them for ministry. Someone described the Acts Pentecost story as the one for extroverts, while the one from John’s gospel, with gentle breath rather than wind and tongues of fire and multiple languages, is Pentecost for introverts.
But this Pentecost day, it’s impossible to hear a story about breath without hearing a man begging for his life: “I can’t breathe.” Or to read of tongues of flame and all the fire language in the liturgy without seeing a police station burned to the ground. Today, these symbols of Divine presence and power collide with horrifying human sin. And what are we to do with that?
I didn’t have a long drive on the PA Turnpike to work it all out, but sheltering in place has brought me to the same conclusions. As people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we are called to lament, repent, and act. But this time around I turned to a tradition I first learned through priest, theologian, writer Matthew Fox. Maybe it will help you, too.
This spiritual process consists of four paths. The first is called the Via Positiva – the experience of awe, wonder and delight. It might sound strange that I begin here given the dire circumstances we’re in. But Pentecost is the ultimate Via Positiva experience. Listen to Fox’s description: “The experience of divinity is light. Awe is what triggers our intuition and wakes us up; it ignites and surprises us—like falling in love with another person or with music, science, flowers, poetry, and the earth.”
The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives should be such an awesome, illuminating encounter that we are set on fire with love – for God, for ourselves, for others, and for the world. So even in the midst of tragedy, we can’t neglect to celebrate this amazing Spirit. We need a little awe and wonder right now.
The second path of our spiritual process is the Via Negativa, the path of darkness, emptiness, silence, and suffering. Via Negativa recognizes that grief is a trigger for waking us up to truths within ourselves. When we don’t deny ourselves the opportunity to feel, and express, and lament our griefs, we can recognize how powerful they are – and also how connected we are to one another, to the earth, to God. It can be painful, yes, but it can also be powerfully cathartic. In a worship service created by Matthew Fox, the Via Negativa is experienced by literally weeping and wailing, expressing through the body the suffering of the world. And not for just a few seconds, either. You do it long enough to get over your self-consciousness and allow yourself to go deep and wrestle with those truths you’re willing to find. This can be where repentance begins.
I was recently very moved by a book called White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism because it helped me see some of the ways that my defensiveness as a person who considers herself ‘woke’ has prevented me from doing the work I needed – and continue to need – to do. The Via Negativa took me into lamentation for my part in a system of oppression that is baked into the DNA of our nation. And even the Church.
Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US was writtenby Lenny Duncan, an ELCA pastor. It’s a really good book. One of the things I like about it is that he calls it a love letter. He’s critical of the church, yet he’s in love with the church. He calls us out, but he also calls us in – into a bold new vision for the ELCA and the broader Christian community. He urges us to follow on the path of Jesus to turn the values of the world upside down and inside out. But it takes willingness on our part to do the work.
In an article today, Michelle Obama lamented, “I’m exhausted by a heartbreak that never seems to stop . . . But if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it. It’s up to all of us — Black, white, everyone — no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out . . . it starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own and ends with justice, compassion, and empathy that manifests in our lives and on our streets.”
Through lamentation and soul-searching, we are able to move on into the Via Creativa, the most elemental, innermost and deeply spiritual aspect of our beings. This is where we begin to imagine a better way.
Fox says, “Imagination brings about not just intimacy but a big intimacy, a sense of union with the cosmos, a sense of belonging and being at home, of our knowing we have not only a right to be here but a task to do as well while we are here.” Through our creativity – whether that is nurturing children, making art, gardening, writing, teaching, building houses – we connect to the Divine in us and bring the Divine back to the community.
Our imagination, our ability to tap into our creative spirit, is what moves us to the second part of repentance. We don’t just feel sorry for our actions; we turn and go a different way, the way back to God. And that leads us to the fourth path where we bring all of our grief, love, and creativity.
Via Transformativa provides a way for our creativity to move into areas of compassion and justice. Creativity by itself isn’t enough. Obviously, we humans can take our creativity to negative places. Creativity can make bombs, for example. So creativity needs direction. That’s where our spiritual teachings come in: to channel our imagination into ways of compassion, healing, justice, and gratitude. That’s the purpose of being Church, to move into these ways together – honestly wrestling and confessing, grieving and letting go, visioning together how to channel our corporate creativity for the sake of the world.
So how does all this relate to the chaos that is all around us on this Pentecost Day?
- It gives us permission to celebrate – even with symbols of breath and fire. I call on each of you to take in as much awe and wonder as you possibly can. Stare into your child’s beautiful face. Marvel at a cat’s paw or the perfect symmetry of a flower. Or how about this – look at your own face with delight. Ignore the imperfections; we all have them. See the unique masterpiece that is you. Say “Wow!” out loud.
- It gives us permission to grieve. We have so much to lament; it can indeed feel over-whelming. One place we can go is the Psalms. Like Psalm 44:Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O God? Awake, do not cast us off forever!
Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
And don’t be afraid to express all your feelings in your prayers. Surely God’s heard it all, and knows how you’re feeling anyway. Allow yourself to be immersed in the Via Negativa. Cry and scream for George Floyd, for all the others on a list far too long, for our ‘original sin,’ and for everything else that weighs heavily upon us in this time of crisis. People in biblical times would cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes. We’re too civilized for something like that – or so we think. Maybe a good collective, national cry or scream is what we all need about now.
- Here’s where it gets pretty radical. I choose to believe that by following this path, we’re opening up some space for a new thing to be born. I’m going to trust in the creative power of God to bring it into being. And I’m going to trust that we can do the same thing as a congregation – even in lockdown. Our collective imagination, fueled by the Holy Spirit, knows no limits.
We might adopt this “Prayer of Good Courage” as our mantra:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Christ our Savior.
- The Via Transformativa is the promise of Easter and the reality of Pentecost. It is real. It is ours. It is what will channel us into those paths as yet untrodden, into ways of mission and ministry that will contribute to the healing of the world. This is no pie-in-the-sky naiveté. God has done it before and will do it again and again, despite how the powers of this world conspire against us. I’m under no illusion that things will suddenly get better. As they say, it’s a marathon not a sprint. But that’s no reason to give up.
Even though I am – and maybe you are, too – still in Via Negativa, I can see the mountaintop. So let’s take our red balloons, flowers, shoes, shirts, whatever we’ve got and march on, defiant in the face of adversity, confident that God – Creator, Christ, and Spirit – goes with us.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they all met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them.
Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue? We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome – all Jews or converts to Judaism – Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!”
All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “People of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! These people are not drunk as you think—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! No, it is what the prophet Joel spoke of:
‘In the days to come – it is our God who speaks – I will pour out my spirit on all humankind. Your daughters and sons will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. Even on the most insignificant of my people, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. And I will display wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire and billowing smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon will become blood before the coming of the great and sublime day of our God. And all who call upon the name of our God will be saved.’”
In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Temple authorities. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Having said this, he showed them the marks of crucifixion. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, “Peace be with you. As Abba God sent me, so I am sending you.” After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”