Speaking in New Tongues: A gift of vulnerability

I want to share this piece I wrote a few weeks ago, as an illustration of how my own experience of limit opened me up to new gifts. What is your story?

–Micah

tree of knowledge

I remember watching my tiny nephew the summer two family members’ health both hit a wall at once.  My brother, the family standard bearer by way of being born first, first to have kids, and taking on my daddy’s dreams which had before come to lay unfulfilled like the over-ripe crabapples I once saw untouched amidst autumn leaves in our family home, had been tasked with taking on their care.  “Watch my little boy for awhile”, he asked us.

My late wife, living then, zoomed around on an electric power chair, since the neurological disorder that later took her life already had stolen her ability to stand and walk.

My little monkey of a nephew loved to ride atop that wheelchair.

tribal_drawing___mother_and_child_by_portraitsbyhand-d5s8kecI told his daddy, who often read him a children’s book called “Boy and Bot”, that I was certain our little monkey thought his aunty wasn’t sick at all but instead part robot and all the cooler for it.  She was his own personal Iron Man.

The little guy would point out everything – sun, moon, stars, leaves, squirrels, dogs, cars – in a flurry of naming.  And, oh the questions that followed!

His questions were as incessant as the drops of rain in one of those summer storms in which I was often caught while wandering in Eastern North Carolina woods as a child, or the blazing heat I came to know in my twenties coming down unstopping in California deserts.

He not only questioned but imagined, making up stories, jokes, and new words for each thing he pointed out.

In wonder, he embraced it all, discovering the language of life.

I am thankful he has yet to learn the other language those days which followed taught me

grief

Hearing, in pained voice, “Honey come here quick”.
“I can’t stand, can you give me a hand?”

“oh, the pain!”

The language I discovered in many unspoken words—

in her grimace that spoke of volumes of pain I have never felt but heard of so fully that morning I had to help her dress herfself for the first time, when the pain of the pressure on her brain blinded her, making her world spin for an hour or more.

In those worry lines,

In her exhaustion, her sighs

In the nameless sorrow that gathered around our home like a thick fog over Mount Pilot

I spoke this language, too, without words.

Since she passed, people congratulate me.  “You look so great!”  “ How have you lost so much weight?” “I love to see you laughing and smiling”

All that changed is that I no longer carry that weight of worry.  No longer do I have sleepless nights wondering if what happened ultimately would come that particular morning – my waking beside a cold, dead body, now emptied of my love.

Some moments I hear these greetings as gift – a reminder I did not let the weight of pain crush me but did as we always talked about, finding life again.

Yet such words are also, unknown to those that speak them, a kind of silence.  My body no longer cries out, no longer thunders in its way, crying desperately out its worry.

Though I work in religion – once a preacher, now a chaplain – I do not know.  I do not know if my beliefs are true and on the other side of death she yet lives and breathes, yet speaks and moves.

In facing her death, I faced that this is not an answer we are given, but can only trust by living in uncertainty.

But I know either way her passing is a liberation – from pain none but I witnessed, worries she and I alone carried, fear unspeakable.

grief cycle

I see this language each day as I sit, eyes locked, holding hands of people likewise locked in pain on my hospice line.

Their voices, expressions, stories, and even silence all speak.

When I see a body hunched, just so, I now know its message.

When I hear that quiver of their loved ones trying to fight back the agony over the phone I nod my head, understanding.

I cannot say I am grateful to learn this language. It certainly does not bring me the joy watching our little monkey learn the language of life gives me.

But in a way, it is her parting gift and, whatever lies beyond the veil, in using it to touch the hurting with love, each day I am her afterlife.

 

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Some words on life after death

stairway to heaven

I wrote this for a friend, but am sharing it here for general consumption.   Seems truthful, and maybe helpful to some of my friends & readers facing grief.  “Those we love, who love us in their earthly lives, leave an indelible mark on who we are. Even though not physically present, we find them in every way our lives continue to be shaped by their example, love, lessons, values. There is no shaking them. I believe in another world, a life after this life. But even if that were not true, there is a kind of life after death, for they truly live on as we embrace the gifts their lives have given ours and find ways to “pay forward” those gifts into other’s lives. In such a way they are resurrected in this life, or reincarnated into the lives of others. That’s at least what I have come to through the loss of my late wife Katharine Leigh, and several dear friends over the last two years. Know our hearts go out to you, and may you experience the ongoing presence of this dear one in your life, in whatever way gives meaning to you, knowing that in you and all whose lives he touch he lives on, in addition to whatever ways they do or do not continue in a next world.”

For those who, like me, have faced griefs in your life this year, in what ways have you experienced the ongoing, continued presence of those who have passed in your lives?  This progressive redneck preacher would love to hear you story.

Micah

micah-tree-of-life

With a Tree of Life painting, a symbol of the promise of life beyond from Genesis 2-3, also in Proverbs of the Wisdom God promises to guide our days, so often passed onto us through those who’ve gone before us.

 

 

Daily Devotional: Being Fully Present in This Day

prayer againI continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles.   In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.

Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

“Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

 

The-Present-MomentThis morning as I reflect on this prayer I am drawn into the phrase “Give us this day our daily bread”.

I find myself so often, in times of trial and transition, becoming caught up in the “what might be’s?”  In wondering what might be coming up around that next corner, good or bad.  Growing up, with some close family members dealing with alcoholism and with mood disorders, often the unexpected which came around the corner was frightening, confusing, or disturbing.  And so it is easy for me in transition or in trial to expect bad to come around the corner.

Yet also, while in transition from rebuilding from losses in my life, I have found it easy to be in a hurry to arrive.   I can sit and imagine how much better my life will be when this or that thing happens and begin to day dream about a better life,  a different life than my own, pushing aside the pain or fear of this moment.

present moment ivOthers tell me they often find themselves locked into their past.  The list of “If only’s” are regrets which weigh them down, keeping them from being able to see the moment right in front of them.  As a chaplain so much of my work is helping people confront and come to peace with their pasts so that they may embrace the moments before them whether few or many as gift.

What can be hard to see in the midst of the storm of trial when it feels like all the present moment brings are torrents of rain upon the meager frame of one’s life or in the midst of painful transition in which getting beyond this moment might be all one could long for, is that such approaches of fixating on what might be in the future, good or bad, or what has been in the past will only leave you stuck.

This reminds me of that now classic scene in the Shawsank Redemption in which, to get out of the prison that held him captive, the main character had dive deep into the sewers.  The only way to freedom was through what was right in front of him, however smelly, awful, and disgusting.   The truth of the matter is the only way forward in our lives is through being as present as we can to this moment in front of us.

In truth, even in the most painful moments, rarely is it that all that is in front of us, no matter how difficult things truly are, is merely sewage.   I am constantly amazed as a chaplain and counselor in working with patients facing situations so much more dreadful and painful than I have ever endured, how many of them are able to find thin slivers of beauty, threads of wonder, which they can grab ahold of in the midst of all that is occurring.  Seeing this happen again and again teaches me that surely in each moment and even around the corner of what is coming there are ugly, painful, and horrible things.  But just as surely often right with them there is also beauty, wonder, love, compassion, which if we train our eyes to look for, we can also cling onto in such moments.

present_momentThe prayer “give us this day our daily bread” is not just a request of God, but an invitation to each of us to choose not to rush beyond the moment we are in, whether painful or joyous, nor to get stuck in the pain, heartache, or nostalgia of the past, but instead to be present with the moment in front of us.

When we do so, we enable even the painful things to open us up to new lessons.

My good friend Nola from college has a wonderful tattoo on her arm of a lotus flower wrapped in a crown of thorns being held up in the hand of a female bodhisattva, which is a Buddhist saint or avatar of the Sacred in Tibetan Buddhism.  The beauty of the image she explains is the lotus in Buddhism and the crown of thorns in Christianity have similar meanings.   The lotus is the beauty, fragrance, and wonder of a full life.  We must stop to smell the flowers.  But Buddhism teaches us that as we do so we must also remember that what makes it possible for the fragrant lotus flower to grow is in fact the death of other plants and animals whose bodies make up the soil, the stench of feces used for fertilizer, the sweat and
toil of working the field and garden, the driving crown of thornsrain we might curse for ruining our spring day.   And when those less pleasant things occur we must take time to become mindful that these are also the factors making possible such fragrant beauty.  Similarly the crown of thorns is a reminder that the Christian image of the Sacred, Jesus, embodied our path to wholeness.  The wholeness of new life pictured in Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning comes only after Jesus chooses to face into great pain, anguish, suffering, and rejection.  A crown of thorns is placed on his head.  He is beaten, abandoned, buried, left for dead.  The end of this ultimately is a restoring of life to Jesus, a life deeper and more abundant than before, and an offer of the same to us if we embrace that journey. Jesus combines these two images in his beautiful saying in John 12:24 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Neither image means we ought to be self-flagellating ones who refuse pleasure and think we deserve suffering.  Rather they call us to embrace the fact that suffering, struggle, pain, heartache, loss, all are a part of what makes joy, hope, new beginning, possible.

I would go further and say only as we choose to be as present as we can to this moment can we also see the joy.  I remember when my late wife passed.  After a couple of months passed, when the great darkness that loss cast over my life began to break with a little daylight, suddenly beginning to feel alive again.  I began to notice joys, hopes, positive experiences, new friendships.  A part of me felt guilty, hurting, in pain.   A part wanted to say “how can you do this?  You can’t stop and see the good.  You can’t laugh and smile.  Won’t that make this loss meaningless?”   There was a part of me, a grieving part of me, that didn’t want to let me see and be present with the positive in front of me.   When I was meditating as I do every day, suddenly it is like I could hear my late wife’s voice saying “You are alive.  chooselife greenEmbrace that.  I set you free to live”.   Call that experience whatever you will but to me it was my realizing, with God’s help, that I needed to continue to be present in this moment, not afraid of even the joys.  I needed to know that caring for myself was important as caring for her those last days of her illness had been or caring for the many people I support every day in my work.   It reminded me that just as we can try to flee in our minds from the pain we can also flee from the joy and new opportunities.

I’m not there yet.  I have my moments I want to push down the pain, ignore it, and soldier through – forgetting that it is only by being kind to myself in my heartache, present to the lessons it teaches me, that I can discover the fresh fragrant flowers that will grow on the other side of the pain.  And often too I will believe the messages I learned from childhood on that somehow I don’t deserve joy, happiness, love, new beginning.  That somehow I cannot sit with this happiness without denying my losses, the pain of others.

I am reminded by this prayer and my dear friend Nola’s tattoo that, nope.  I don’t have to make that choice.  It is not an either/or.

We are people both of lotus and of fertilizer, cross and of Easter morning.  After all, it is only the labor pains which birth the child.  And what beauty each new birth in our life produces.

May you find such new beginnings now and always.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Interrupted by Grief

grief angelI am interrupting our regular series with a reflection on grief, shared by a good friend of mine on the passing of his brother.

To me interrupting a series with a reflection on grief is so appropriate.  For grief does interrupt our lives.  I know a few weeks ago, it did interrupt my life.

As regular readers would know, last year my wife of 12 years passed.  I have reached the place that I am very happy with life.  There is so much joy and wonder in my life.  I have a job I love.  I have so many wonderful friends.   I am engaged in things that give me life.

Yet a few weeks ago, I woke up and could barely pull myself out of bed.  My heart was heavy.  I woke, as much as I love the life I have been building for myself on the other side of this heartache and loss, wanting only in all the world to be in the life I once had but have no longer, with the woman I loved and shared life with for 13 years.  I felt crushingly alone.

grief pattern

I did what I have learned to do in such moments.  I took time to sit with the pain, to acknowledge my loss.  And I leaned into my life.  I worked in the community garden.  I kept to my commitments at volunteer organizations.  I went to the gym and to the farmer’s market.  I reached out to friends.  I found as I did so the joy of life returning, including gratitude for the good in front of me, gratitude for the life Kat and I had shared, but also the peace of knowing as I do deep in my heart that her illness and suffering is over and in our own ways — me, here and now, and her in the next world — our lives move on.  Life springs forth beyond death.

By Monday my peace had returned.

Grief is like this.  Days, weeks, months, years, after our losses, the pain returns.  The sorrows falls upon us.  Our heart aches.  We reel, disoriented.   Yet as we take time to listen to the voice of our pain and the lessons it teaches us, some comfort and healing comes.  As we take time to reach out to our friends and community of support and engage in those things which help us connect with life and beauty, we are able to find our bearings again.

grief cycle

So as a way of remembering and honor all of our griefs, dear readers, I share these traditional Jewish reflections on grief and loss.  To me they beautifully remind me how these occasions of unexpected outbursts of grief that come again and again after every loss need not crush us.  Rather they can be openings to deeper understanding of ourselves, deeper compassion for others, and renewed embrace of the beauty, love, and connection in life.

May these words help all of you in your journey of grief, loss, and new beginning.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

jewish-praying-5798727

Meditation before Kaddish”

 “When I die give what is left of me away

To children and old men that wait to die.

 

And if you need to cry, Cry for your brother

Walking the street beside you.

 

And when you need me, put your arms around anyone

And give them what you need to give me.

 

jewish prayer 2

I want to leave you something,

Something better than words or sounds.

Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved,

And if you cannot give me away,

At least let me live in your eyes and not in your mind.

 

You can love me best by letting hands touch hands,

And by letting go of children that need to be free.

Love doesn’t die, people do.

So, when all that’s left of me is love,

 

GIVE ME AWAY.”

 

 

jewish prayer

From the Talmud:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

 

Daily Devotional: God Who Opens Our Shell

breath prayerI continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles.   In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.

Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

“Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

As I was thinking about the words we are reflecting on in the Lord’s Prayer, especially how it calls us to see ourselves as connected with others, so that our heart’s cry is no longer simply about our own needs,  I couldn’t help but think of a beautiful prayer of Jurgen Moltmann.  He writes:
Jesus Redeemer of All Creation“When I love God I love the beauty of bodies, the rhythm of movements, the shining of eyes, the embraces, the feelings, the scents, the sounds of all this protean creation. When I love you, my God, I want to embrace it all, for I love you with all my senses in the creations of your love. In all the things that encounter me, you are waiting for me.
For a long time I looked for you within myself and crept into the shell of my soul, shielding myself with an armour of inapproachability. But you were outside – outside myself – and enticed me out of the narrowness of my heart into the broad place of love for life. So I came out of myself and found my soul in my senses, and my own self in others.”
Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life

In many ways this journey — out of the armour of innaproachability, the shells we built up to protect ourselves from pain yet which hold others & the world at bay — is the one the Lord’s Prayer invites us to go on.

inner-peace (1)How have you experienced this liberating journey?  How do you invite others to do the same?

Let us open ourselves to the call.  Though it is frightening to become open and vulnerable to others, to this world, even to God and ourselves, especially when our life is broken and hearts hurting, ultimately that is the path that leads to wholeness.  Let us engage it together.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Hope Beyond Our Heartache, Healing From our Pain

prayer-handsI continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles.   In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.

 

Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

“Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

 

I return again to the phrase “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.  When I last reflected on these words, I thought about what we can learn about the vexing image of a Kingdom and God as King.   I shared how we ought to be a bit more jesus resurrection appearance5thrown off than often we are by envisioning God as a dictator of any type, benevolent or not.  I explored how different every kingdom, empire, system of conquest, that has ever been is to what Jesus reveals God to be doing.   Jesus as King and God’s plan being fulfilled in this world through Jesus ushering in a Kingdom, we discussed are images dripping with irony. In such imagery Jesus pokes fun at all of our worldly empires whether of Rome or of Wall Street, revealing the deep emptiness their glamor and glistening appearance hide.

I didn’t talk, though, about how these words speak to our individual experiences of suffering, transition, and pain.  Of course, clearly there is a way obvious to anyone crushed under foot by the empires of this world – flattened by the heel of damaging patriarchy, bigotry, sexism, discrimination.  I am sure here in my dear south-land as folks seek to write oppression of queer people into law yet again, the remind that these systems of injustice that bring individuals oppressed by them such pain have been weighed by God, found wanting, and their days are numbered … well, boy howdy, that’s some good news!  It’s an invitation to help be a part of living the future today, by living the reality of a life with justice.

In other instances, though, of facing into pain and loss, trauma and grief, it may take a moment to see how these words speak.  I cannot speak for others but for myself at least, these words are a reminder of how much bigger our world is than my own pain.  You know, in the experience of trauma, grief, loss, our souls become singularities.  Like a collapsing star falls into itself, becoming black holes that capture all light, so the weight of our pain griefcan cause us to collapse in on ourselves.  In such times all we see is our loss, our pain, our suffering. Turned inward by our sorrow, we so easily forget those others around us.  We can fail to see their hope, joy, and sorrow.  It is easy to forget those suffering injustice and illness, those fighting an uphill battle every day when all we see is the darkness washing over the inner landscape of our soul like some reverse sunrise that robs rather than sheds light upon our days.

Every day that I am hurting and I truly pray this prayer, letting the words speak to me as I speak them, I am reminded: as much as I hurt, as much as I must sit with my pain and not bury it, there is more to the world than my loss.  More than my sorrow.  More even than those fleeting moments of joy which at times after the loss of my wife I sought after like some kitten chasing the red dot from a laser pen upon the wall.

This scurry to find peace, this rush to wrestle through the pain, or even the exhaustion that causes us to give up and lay down in our pajamas not wanting to get out of bed in our suffering, is inevitable.  Some of it is even necessary – for stuffing down our feelings, ignoring our pain, has its own explosive consequences long term.    But praying “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done on Earth as it is in Heaven” invites me to see ultimately there is more at work than me and my needs, my pain, my loss.

It also I think gives us some direction about what to do with our pain.

A good friend of mine who passed some years ago was a retired rabbi who was deeply involved in the fight for queer rights in Eastern North Carolina until the day he died.  I still remember when I stood with my preaching stole on my shoulders, Bible in hand, side by mend world 2side with him and spoke out in Fayetteville about how our different faiths spoke out against the issue of injustice.   My dear departed friend shared about the concept of tikkun olam, the Jewish call to “mend the world”.  He shared how his faith taught that our world was broken in places, incomplete, and the call of believers and people of good will was to work together with God to perfect and to mend this world so that God’s word over it “It is good” was made true in each generation.

His words always made me think of the words of the Eagles song –

“There’s a hole in the world tonight

There’s a cloud of fear and sorrow

There’s a hole in the world tonight

Don’t let there be a hole in the world tomorrow

 

“They say that anger is just love disappointed

They say that love is just a state of mind

But all this fighting over who is anointed

Oh, how can people be so blind?

 

There’s a hole in the world tonight

There’s a cloud of fear and sorrow

There’s a hole in the world tonight

Don’t let there be a hole in the world tomorrow

 

“Oh, they tell me there’s a place over yonder

Cool water running through the burning sand

Until we learn to love one another

We will never reach the promised land

 

“There’s a hole in the world tonight

There’s a cloud of fear and sorrow

There’s a hole in the world tonight

Don’t let there be a hole in the world tomorrow

 

“(There’s a hole in the world tonight)

They say that anger is just love disappointed

(There’s a cloud of fear and sorrow)

They say that love is just a state of mind

(There’s a hole in the world tonight)

But all this fighting over who will be anointed

(Don’t let there be a hole in the world tomorrow)

Oh, how can people be so blind?

 

 

“There’s a hole in the world tonight

Hole in the world

There’s a cloud of fear and sorrow

Fear and sorrow

There’s a hole in the world tonight

Don’t let there be a hole in the world tomorrow

 

“There’s a hole in the world tonight

There’s a hole in the world

(There’s a cloud of fear and sorrow)

 

“A cloud of fear and sorrow

There’s a hole in the world tonight

(Don’t let there be a hole in the world tomorrow)

Don’t let there be a hole in the world

 

“There’s a hole in the world tonight

(There’s a cloud of fear and sorrow)

Oh there’s a cloud of fear and sorrow

There’s a hole in the world tonight

(There’s a hole in the world tonight)

Don’t let there be a hole in the world tomorrow

 

“There’s a hole in the world tonight

There’s a cloud of fear and sorrow

There’s a hole in the world tonight

Don’t let there be a hole in the world tomorrow

 

“There’s a hole in the world tonight

There’s a cloud of fear and sorrow

There’s a hole in the world tonight”

The call of this prayer is to join God in helping this world become as it is from heaven, “good, very good”.  It is to realize even in our pain we are invited to engage in mending the world.

This begins, of course, with the work on sitting with our pain, being kind to ourselves, and doing the hard work of mending our own lives and our own souls.  But if we do while actively praying “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, we are reminding ourselves such mending is not just for our own good.  Sure, we will feel better.  Sure, we will engage in the world more freely, with more smiles and fewer tears each day that we heal.   But we also heal so that by having faced into our own pain, confronting the tattered edges of our own soul, now we are uniquely suited to be agents of healing for others.

This is what is pictured by the words of Rumi that the broken places in our lives are the holes that become windows that let the light into our world. This is also what is pictured in the Christian faith by the symbols for the way of healing being a man hanging broken and bleeding on the cross and break broken asunder, drink poured out.   Our experience of pain, brokenness, loss, and healing can give us perspective to be ones who help others through their own pain.  They, can when faced with the wider vision this prayer invites us to have, open up these experiences into sources of compassion, lovingkindness, commitment to justice, which open us up to become channels of healing ourselves.

I can’t speak for others, but in my own experiences of loss and pain having this potential hope at the end of my heartaches has given them new meaning.   My losses, my heartaches, and yours as well, need not be without meaning.  With God’s help we can go through our journeys of healing, sure, but also go through them in ways that help us become partners with God in helping others find healing.  In helping heal our world.

That’s a journey worth having.  Let’s stroll over yonder there together.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Joining the King-less Kingdom, God’s Original Revolution

gethsemane prayerI continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles.   In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.

 

Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

“Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

 

Today I want to start reflecting on Jesus’ words “Thy Kingdom come”.  My first thought as I reflect on those words are what we might easily overlook if we have prayed this prayer our whole lives:   how problematic asking for a kingdom to come ought to be for us in our modern world.

prince charmingI think a lot of time our images of kingship and kingdoms are Disney images: prince charming sweeping a fair maiden off her feet.   An attractive benevolent figure, who protects the people, cares for them, is chivalrous and kind.  A happily ever after.

The reality of kingship has only rarely been that.  When we read the history of great kings and queens we see intrigue and murder, suspicion and execution of enemies.   We see Henry the Eighth beheading his wives and Mary Queen of Scotts’ reign of terror.  We read stories of poor people being oppressed and of the average person being taken advantage by those in power.   Even in the Biblical accounts, in which David and Solomon are presented as the ideal kings, we see this too, don’t we?  David as king rapes Bathsheba, spins a plot to kill her husband when this rape produces a pregnancy, and at times has his army act like a gang of thugs under the rule of some mafia lord.    Solomon may exercise wisdom and spark a literary and artistic renaissance expressed

King Lear

in inspiring wisdom literature, some of which becomes Scripture, and the building of the temple in Jerusalem, but we must not forget his marrying many women in a way that treats them not as human beings but as property like cattle, used to secure business deals.   We can’t forget the cries of the people against him when he uses average folks like slaves, taxes them beyond what is fair, all while living a life of ease.  These are the good kings in the Bible, the good kingdoms.  How far removed they are from our “happily ever after” magical kingdom picture.

 

My own country, the United States, tells its own story in terms of the horrors of kingdoms.  The story we Americans tell of our founding is of many who came here to found our country doing so in order to flee the oppression produced by kings and queens, so that they could be free to live their lives honestly and without fear.   Though I think you can also question this story as not the whole truth, in light of many of these same founders of our country’s own slave-owning and treatment of women and children, the fact these settlers told this story shows the horror and fear such absolute rulers can produce.

Their hope to build a society not based on kingship or monarchy, but based on every person being treated with respect, fairness, and compassion is beautifully expressed by the hymn “Sing John Ball” by Sydney Carter:

 

 

“Who’ll be the lady, who will be the lord

When we are ruled by the love of one another

Who’ll be the lady, who will be the lord

In the life that is coming in the morning

 

“Chorus

Sing, John Ball and tell it to them all

Long live the day that is dawning

And I’ll crow like a cock, I’ll carol like a lark

For the life that is coming in the morning

 

“Eve is the lady, Adam is the lord

When we are ruled by the love of one another

Eve is the lady, Adam is the lord

In the life that is coming in the morning

 

“Chorus…

Sing, John Ball and tell it to them all

Long live the day that is dawning

And I’ll crow like a cock, I’ll carol like a lark

For the life that is coming in the morning

All shall be ruled by fellowship I say

All shall be ruled by the love of one another

All shall be ruled by fellowship I say

In the life that is coming in the morning

 

“Chorus… Sing, John Ball and tell it to them all

Long live the day that is dawning

And I’ll crow like a cock, I’ll carol like a lark

For the life that is coming in the morning

 

 

“Labour and spin for fellowship I say

Labour and spin for the love of one another

Labour and spin for fellowship I say

And the life that is coming in the morning

 

“Chorus…

Sing, John Ball and tell it to them all

Long live the day that is dawning

And I’ll crow like a cock, I’ll carol like a lark

For the life that is coming in the morning

 

“Chorus…

Sing, John Ball and tell it to them all

Long live the day that is dawning

And I’ll crow like a cock, I’ll carol like a lark

For the life that is coming in the morning”

 

Being ruled not by some dictator whether with a benevolent generosity or iron fist but by the love and compassion we share for one on another, the longing to build the bonds of fellowship and community that make life thrive, is quite a compelling vision.  It is a vision that stands in stark contrast to the desire to build security, safety, prosperity by crushing underfoot the poor, the marginalized, those we deem others.  It is a different dream than all our systems of control throughout time have produced.

 

The irony, of course, is just this hope which Sydney Carter’s song describes and its corresponding criticism of not just monarchy but patriarchy, heterosexism, totalitarianism, in fact any and all systems that oppress one group to lift up another is at the heart of Jesus’ language of “kingdom of God”.

 

In using the phrase “kingdom of God” in his prayer here, and also in his teaching in which he envisions this other reality, this other way of relating to God and organizing community, Jesus is drawing on a common theme of Jewish prayer.   A common Jewish prayer on the Sabbath goes like this:

“Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine. (Amen)

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments, and hoped for us, and with love and intent invested us with His sacred Sabbath, as a memorial to the deed of Creation. It is the first among the holy festivals, commemorating the exodus from Egypt. For You chose us, and sanctified us, out of all nations, and with love and intent You invested us with Your Holy Sabbath.”

As objectionable as the image of God as King and Lord may be in our modern culture – and rightly so! – in the Jewish and early Christian context, it was a revolutionary Caesar-crossing-the-rubiconstatement.   The ancient approach to organizing life that seemed most successful was the approach of empire begun by the Babylonians and that in Jesus’ day had reached a kind of climax in the Roman government which crushed Jesus’ people under foot.  In Rome, just as in earlier empires, language of god-hood and kingship were ascribed of course to the emperor.  Caesar was hailed throughout the lands as Savior, son of god, Prince of Peace.  Just as the Gospels later proclaim “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men” , so Caesar was said to bring about the “Pax Romana”, a nearly global absence of war.  But Rome’s peace came in a different way than either the peace the Jewish people hoped for or the peace about which Jesus spoke.

The Jewish hope of peace came, as the Sabbath prayer suggests, out of people discovering and participating in the commandments of God.  This was more than the legalistic rigidity which Paul and Jesus later challenged in the Jewish faith they were raised, but more a sense that there is a harmony woven into life itself which these laws invite us to rediscover.  It is like a dance moving all about us in creation which, in dancing near godjoining, causes our lives to take on a peace and rhythm that brings wholeness.   Jewish prophets and sages in the Hebrew Scriptures which Jews and Christians share envision a coming shalom in which violence, warfare, division, and poverty are no more not out of a crushing violence that flattens the criminal but more out of the natural outcome of individuals, communities, and even nature itself finding their place in the pattern of life God has woven into the universe itself which, in so far as we join in it, causes us and all around us to thrive.

Similarly Jesus’ peace is one that is found not in crushing the enemy, but in loving the neighbor and even the one we know as enemy, praying for them, doing good even to those that harm us.  It is in breaking the cycle of violence and retribution itself.  It comes in recognizing as Gandhi said that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.  It is choosing to embrace reconciliation where there is alienation, healing where there is brokenness, compassion exactly where violence & inhumanity reign.   It is only possibly out of that inward peace that comes which passes understanding and is not as the world gives, but flows from the deep realization that just as was spoken over Jesus at his baptism, so we too exactly as we are before we can ever live up to the world’s or religion’s standards are God’s children, whom God loves completely, and in whom God is completely well pleased just as we are.   Such peace within enables us in the Christian understanding of such peace to embrace this other way of relating and ways of organizing our common life that flow from such a place.

For me the wonderful book by Desmond Tutu No Future Without Forgiveness which charts the attempt in South Africa at the end of apartheid to embrace a way forward based on such models which envision peace and healing in community flowing not from retribution or crushing the other but from embracing healing, reconciliation, mutual respect.

This is in stark contrast to the peace of empire which Caesar promoted, a peace Tacitus described by saying “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”   Flattening under foot of those who don’t fit your image of the ideal life, pushing aside the poor, the forsaken, the undesirables.  This is exactly the way of empire, the way that the early Jews, Jesus, and the early Christians are suggesting in praying to God as “King” or one whose Kingdom ought to come, that it is not this path of oppression, marginalization, and discard of the least of these which is the path forward to lasting wholeness but rather one grounded on shalom, on finding a path of healing, reconciliation, embrace of what draws all people and all of life together.

I heard one United Church of Christ preacher I respect suggest, in light of this, it might be helpful to translate Jesus’ phrase “kingdom of God” as “God’s revolution”.  For what we are praying for is what Sydney Carter sings about – a recognition that the only King, only Ruler, we have is the One we find present in the love for one another, expressed in the fellowship found when we embrace each person around us as bearers of this Sacred image.   When we relate to others as each also bearers of the stamp of royalty, with none as forgettable and untouchable, we live out this revolution Jesus teaches us to pray for.   It is a prayer for every oppressive system to be torn down, either replaced by or transformed into an expression of this deep harmony.  It is even a prayer for us to move closer to that place where nature is no longer torn asunder by our greed but made to thrive as we embrace loving toward it.

This doesn’t really answer how the prayer “thy kingdom come” speaks to our present experience of suffering, which I hope to talk about in my next post.   But it does invite us to re-envision these words as a recognition that God ultimately is the true Ruler, not any person, political party, or system.  And that ultimately we are called to be like mid-wives helping birth this other way of weaving together relationships and communities.   Let’s join in both praying for and living out this original revolution which Jesus and the prophets envisioned.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah