When the Nations Rage…

Our youngest daughter, Grace, is and always has been a poet. From the time she was small, she looked at the world through a poet’s eyes, whether she was viewing a patch of dandelions or speaking with one of her vast collection of stuffed animals. Rachel, on the other hand, was never really given to simile and metaphor. “Just say it to me plain!” was her motto. If Rachel was looking at a flower, it was just that–a flower. And the same was true with dolls, cookies, and sunshine. She enjoyed them with every fiber of her being–just for being exactly what they were–although cookies maybe have had a little deeper meaning!

This difference between the girls continued to play itself out as they grew older. Grace would happen upon a poem that spoke to the depths of her being and long to share it with the rest of us. As she read the poem aloud–usually on some long car trip–Rachel would start protesting and complaining, “Gracie, you know I don’t get poetry! Just tell me what it means!”

Many of us face the similar challenges when we try to understand Jesus. He is a consummate storyteller, and storytellers–whether through poetry or prose–use a lot of symbolism. Jesus likens faith to a tiny mustard seed (Luke 17:6). He compares the Kingdom of God to a treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44). Even more directly, he proclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25),” or “I am the vine, and you are the branches” (John 15:5).

Without a horde of poets as traveling disciples, Jesus explains himself again and again, clarifying his parables in what some might call “plain speech.” “Remain united to me, and I will remain united to you,” (John 15:4) Jesus urges his followers amid the analogies of vines and branches. ‘Stay connected to me–up close and so personal that nourishment flows from my very being to your daily life!’
For many decades, but even more so since the church changed its name in the year 2000, we have been a congregation known for our commitments to peace and justice. Look at our bulletin announcements! This week alone, we are tackling environmental sustainability, the practice of torture, and principles of nonviolence. So many of the newcomers to the church in the past five years have come here precisely because we are ‘Peace Community Church,’ a congregation that relates the deep social issues of our day to the practice of Christian discipleship.

In the context of the global community, we know that it is not enough to simply look at our faith through our own eyes, or the eyes of western culture, or the eyes of academic theologians. We know that it is not enough to simply look at our faith through the eyes of straight people, or white men, or the dominant culture, or the rich. The list goes on and on. If the church is to be prophetic in our time and speak boldly to the future of our nation and planet, it is imperative that we stay attached to the Vine, listen, and learn. That’s why you can look at the bulletin announcements and see the kinds of events that you see.

Yet, to sustain a prophetic ministry, we are going to need every contemplative resource at our disposal. Go back to that vine and branches analogy again. We need spiritual water, food, and shelter. We need comfort and direction. We need to stay connected to the Vine. We need to stay tethered to Jesus.
Our daily routines so often consume us, but there are bigger challenges before us as well. On Tuesday, the President signed into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006, passed by Congress on September 28. With this Act, you or I –anyone, here or abroad–could be classified as a “terrorist,” labeled a ‘credible threat’ to the United States, rendered an “enemy combatant,” and be arrested. Disappear. Vanish. No way for our families to find us. This has already happened to hundreds and thousands in the prisons of Iraq and Afganistan. It has already happened in Guantanamo Bay. Now, it could happen to you or me.

While some hail this legislation as an invaluable weapon within the national arsenal in the fight against terrorism, others decry it as the worst legislation passed in the history of the Republic. We have assurances from government officials that this Act would not be used against lawful citizens, but it could be. Unless this Act is struck down by federal courts as unconstitutional, it will be up to the State to decide in the months and years ahead whether Christians are a danger to the public order. Does that send a chill up and down your spine? It does mine.

How shall we live as people of faith in times such as these, and stay tethered to the Vine? What kind of spiritual lives do we need to cultivate when the nations of the earth rage and their people–we ourselves–are subject to forces far beyond our control?

I have intentionally included more chant and silence in worship lately. When the nations rage, the Church must become both silent and loud at the same time–silent enough to hear the still, small voice of God amid the whirlwind; loud enough to speak truth to power with courage and conviction.

I have intentionally introduced the choir to several pieces of new music with incredible texts this year. After 27 years, we are beginning to update the choir library! Hallelujah! When the nations rage, we need to sing! We need to sing our conviction, sing our praise for the God of the Nations, sing our commitments! We need to sing our gratitude for sweet fellowship, daily food, and divine sustenance. Sing, church, sing! Sing from your hearts! Sing with your lives! Sing with your gifts! Sing with your service!

Many of you know that I can hardly sing anymore because the act of singing frequently triggers a downward spiral of nerve pain that can escalate and expand. It’s hard for me not to sing, because I love to sing. I sing when I teach piano. I sing when I do dishes. I sing when I work with choir. I sing in the car.
But, you know what? At Music Night here at church a week ago, I sat and listened to the quiet strums of the dulcimer, auto harp, and guitar, accompanying the gentle voices of the small group gathered. We did Mary Caroniti’s favorite song, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and my mother’s favorite song, “I Come to the Garden Alone.” I have grown to appreciate “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” in so many textured ways over the years. It was sweet to listen to, as I recalled the hard places where God had befriended me. As the group began “I Come to the Garden Alone,” I was transported back to my childhood, listening to my mom sing this–her favorite hymn–in her hesitant, never-as-confident-as-her-sister’s voice. The evening was a piece of heaven. When the nations rage, we need to sing.

When the nations rage, we need to pray. Oh, my goodness–what a foolish, wasteful act this seems to those who do not look with the eyes of faith! But, for those of us who are tended by the Gardener, who recognize the Vine and remain tethered to its life, who know that we are but branches of the Vine and not masters of our own fate–prayer is such a gift!

I am so thankful that I can pray for my three daughters. Even when relationships were not as warm and fuzzy as they are today, I could still pray for them. No matter what happens to us, we can pray. If we are helpless to change a situation on our own, we can pray. If we are bedridden and feel useless, we can pray. If we are imprisoned and feel isolated, we can pray. Jesus taught his followers to pray…and pray…and pray.

When the nations rage, the Church needs to revive the ancient practice of lament which the prophets of old used to give voice to God’s sorrow at injustice.

While the nations rage, the Church needs to plumb the depths of contemplation, rooting herself deeply in the soil of God’s grace.

While the nations rage, the Church needs to marvel at the wonder and miracle of creation every day, remembering always our own finiteness as well as our beauty.

Our daughter, Rachel, recently finished a half-marathon race, which is 13 miles. She placed in the top 10% out of 1678 women who ran. She has been giving me tips on varying my exercise routine, alternating jogging with walking or power walking.

Yesterday, I tried some of that alternation. It felt pretty good. But a few hours later, my legs and back were hurting! I was using muscles that I hardly knew I had.

The Church in the United States needs to rise up and get to the gym! We need to work out those underdeveloped spiritual muscles, wherever they are! We need to work them out every day–until they ache and we know they are there!

God is calling us to dig our spiritual wells deep for these times, build our spiritual lives on firm foundations, and continue to provoke one another to love and good works (this church is good at that!) and even prophetic works–that is the harder part which requires more courage.

What kind of inner journeys do we need to cultivate for such days? What kind of community do we need to build with each other? Let’s explore these questions together in the days ahead.

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