Thanks at Table – A Pandemic Reflection

The roundtable worship gathering has been the principal way I have stayed centered over the past two decades. The symbolism of the round table has played a central role in many people’s longing for an inclusive fellowship of equals seeking reconciliation through speaking and listening from the heart. It is precisely this physical gathering at table that has been overturned in our response to the pandemic rifling through our midst. Yet we continue in little squares of participation on the computer screen, zooming from voice to voice as we stitch a conversation that might clothe us for the weeks and months ahead.

Even as we embrace technologies that bring us into contact around the globe, we also remember and rediscover the local gatherings and meetings that actually create the trust necessary for reconciled life—at patio tables for two or four, across sales counters draped in plastic sheets, and at polling places and counting halls as we register and record our votes. It is in these local encounters that we have the chance to turn fear into respect, anger into understanding, rejection into cooperation.

Right now we are being saved by the thousands of citizens who have carefully counted every vote, by the health workers who have cared for us one person at a time, for the grocery clerk who helps us obtain food, the public servants who keep our common life going from post office to fire station. That’s what I’m giving thanks for this season. As we witness the spectacle of self-absorbed vanity in our highest offices, we are being sustained by the everyday heroism of the person next door and down the street. And so we give thanks for one another.

We have just gathered for our monthly roundtable of prayer and conversation. I share the words of our liturgy with you. And then, next week, we simply, very simply, give thanks.

Call to the Table

Out of the lie of self-sufficiency

            You call us to the truth of your sustaining love.

Out of the wounds that hold our hearts in pain

You lead us to the healing balm of your acceptance.

From the wilderness of empty promises

You draw us to the waters of your faithfulness.

From the fist of vengeful fear

You take us in your all-forgiving arms.

We come to your table.

Your table of peace.

            ALL. Amen. Amin, Ameyn.

Remembrance

In the wake of fratricidal murder, you placed a mark of your protection on the face of Cain.

In the storm of Pharaoh’s cruelty you made a way through waters of resistance to a promised land.

In the midst of endless bloodshed you brought forth new generations through a mother’s care.

In exile and destruction you burned off the idols of our wealth and power.

In your self-giving you released the power of a new creation.

In life, in death, the thankful love of countless saints has brought us to this table of your peace.

Thanksgiving  

O, Healer at the Heart of Life,

With the brilliant beauty of the fallen leaves our hearts exult in grateful praise. For the bounty of the earth despite our thoughtless exploitation, we give you hearty thanks. For the love that gives us strength to give and to accept forgiveness, we lift our voice in thankfulness. For fellowship beyond each barrier of disease, we give you our unending thanks.

The Hope Prayer

 O Source of Life, You alone are holy.

Come, govern us in perfect peace.

Give us today the food that we need.

Release us from our sin as we

release our enemies.

Sustain us in our times of trial.

Liberate us all from evil powers.

Guide us in your justice, wisdom, and peace. Amen, Amin, Ameyn

Words of Commitment

 In God’s love, we will seek the path of reconciliation.

In God’s power, we will walk the ways of peace.

In God’s wisdom, we will struggle for God’s justice in this world.

In God’s mercy, we will seek to care for Earth, our home.

Posted in Roundtable Ministries Project, Worship and Spirituality | 1 Comment

Not even Judas

Hidden on the mountainsides of Appalachia

lives beneath majestic canopies

a tree they call the Judas tree.

Its purple buds begin the spring

break through the bark betrayed by winter’s silver hands.

And as the sun burns higher in the sky

the leaves

turned green

turned red

like hearts

begin to tremble, shake, and beat.

Humbled underneath the shade of oak and ash it greets

the seal of Solomon

the trillium

the ginseng with its fabled powers.

Beside it bows the dogwood

bright bracts cut short by blood-brown marks,

its body twisted with a gnarled grace.

The redbud

legacy of our betrayal

brings forth the rosy lips of spring.

The dogwood

emblem of God’s suffering

whispers in the wakening gloom

not even Judas lies beyond the love of God.

Posted in Poetry and Songs | 1 Comment

Race, Remembrance, and Forgiveness

I am presently engaged in a lengthy course at our church (via Zoom, naturally) entitled “Struggling with Race, Remembrance, and Reparations.” Over forty of us are gathering every week to reflect on books such as White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  In addition, in cooperation with our local NAACP chapter we are viewing recorded interviews (an accommodation to the pandemic) with members of our small but historic African American community responding to the same questions we are engaging in circle conversations in our church. All of this is in preparation for further collaboration with them and other churches and community groups to participate in the Monuments Project of the Equal Justice Initiative at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Our goal is to conduct widespread conversations about racial justice in our county and place a memorial to a mob’s murder of a Black resident in 1900. (You can find out more about the EJI’s project by clicking HERE.)

One of our conversations is dealing with the difficult issue of forgiveness in the context of rightful remembrance and racial justice. I prepared a brief statement about it to inform our conversation that I share with you here. The “collaborative” form of forgiveness I sketch here needs  a great deal more development. Your thoughts would be most appreciated. (My “captcha” gatekeeper at the Comments below has been replaced, so you ought to be able to post without difficulty.)

Three Views on Forgiveness

In the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, “There is no future without forgiveness.” In forgiveness we release others as we ourselves are released from the past acts that have imprisoned us in vengeance, retaliation, and broken trust.

The standard account of forgiveness requires apology from the one who broke trust. Apology must be a sincere expression of remorse that recognizes the harm that was done, demonstrates a desire to act in good faith in the future, and affirms a readiness to repair the damage to the greatest extent possible. Here, forgiveness emerges as a kind of contract between two individuals to live in a new relationship. In the midst of our long history of systemic racism White people find it hard to apologize in any coherent or convincing way, often because they cannot attach the recognized wrongs of the past to specific harmed persons in the present.

Forgiveness can also be extended unilaterally before an apology is given. Sometimes this is understood as a response to receiving forgiveness or grace from God. It is based in a wider sense that “all of us have sinned and fallen short.” Unilateral forgiveness trusts that the God who has forgiven all of us will sustain, transform, and guide both harm-doer and victim into a new, better relationship. This awareness of a pre-emptive forgiveness can bring about greater self-acceptance for both wrong-doer and victim so we can deal with the actual harms we have made and suffered in the world. In the overwhelming wake of historic white racism, the burden for this unilateral forgiveness falls on the shoulders of the descendants of enslaved Americans in a way that is often heroic and compelling, as with the words of forgiveness at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, but tends not to evoke the deep conversion necessary from the other side.

Drawing on classic Biblical perspectives, however, unilateral forgiveness can be understood not merely as an effect of God’s forgiveness of individuals but of our collective living into an altogether new age or creation. The early Christians believed they were already living in the dawn of this new creation, making release from the dead hand of the past a living reality claiming all people who would receive it.  This is the context for the Lord’s Prayer’s unusual formulation of forgiveness. Here, forgiveness is no longer merely an interpersonal dynamic but an expression of the actual life of a people living in a new covenant with one another formed by the world-renewing life of God. We might call this a collaborative forgiveness, for it arises in the shared commitment to live according to the promises of a new creation. It is a recognition that the history of wrong-doing and injury is being radically transformed by the love and power of God. Discerning and living into the contours of this new reality underlies our strengthened capacity for forgiveness and a new covenant of relationships among groups as well as individuals. Recalling St. Paul’s words, forgiveness is the common work of a people being transformed by the work of God, who was in Christ “reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (II Corinthians 5:19) This can open up a perspective that might help us navigate the difficult waters of forgiveness in the midst of our long history of racial injustice.

 

Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Restorative Justice, Roundtable Ministries Project | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Living in God’s Image: Despotism or Republican Democracy?

My thoughts about the despotism that is infecting our virus-plagued lives have gained a new articulation in The Christian Citizen, an American Baptist journal stimulating reflection on the church’s involvement in public life. You can read the whole piece by CLICKING HERE.

In this brief essay I argue that Trump’s support by Evangelical Christians is not a blind contradiction of Jesus’s teachings but is actually an expression of their allegiance to an image of God they rehearse daily in prayer and weekly in worship. This is the God who creates reality out of His own words and will. It is a God of inexplicable vengeance as well as grace and pardon. It is a God of will more than reason, command rather than law, magic rather than wisdom. It is God as despot, the ancient Greek ruler of a submissive household of women, children, and slaves.

Moreover, this image is not merely an Evangelical fixation. It is found in the everyday piety of prayers for health and well-being as well as in Hallelujah choruses, creeds, and benedictions. That is, it is a problem for Christians across the boards. It creates the perennial gap between our images and accepted formulas for God, the source of all power and authority, and the republican, constitutional, and democratic convictions at the heart of the American Constitution.

Having laid out this tension and the way Evangelicals who support Trump have taken the despotic image of God to its logical political conclusion, I then point out that there are many other images in our ancient as well as recent traditions that offer other ways to imagine our source of authority and power. They include not only the radically suffering God embodied In Jesus’s self-giving, but the Trinitarian ideas of the “procession” of the “persons” of God, the visions of God in process theology, and the eco-feminist notions of the earth as God’s body. And there are others.

Thus, the scandal of Evangelical support for Trump is a theological problem for Christians across the spectrum. The perilous state in which we find ourselves is a deeply theological one that requires renewed commitment to the task of formulating an understanding of the Divine mystery in a way that revitalizes just governance. Moreover, it requires finding ways to express this fundamental conception of God in prayer, worship, and song. Let me know what you see from your vantage point. We need all the voices we can get.

Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Worship and Spirituality | 1 Comment