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Lead, a poem by Mary Oliver
Philippians 4:1-9 (Common English Bible Translation)
September 30th, 2018
“Dear Henry,” the open letter from Lisa See to her grandson begins, “I don’t ever want you to feel hopeless or powerless. Now, of course, you have the usual ways that little boys can feel hopeless and powerless – bedtime, for example – but I’m talking about bigger things. You paid surprising attention to the election. How could you not, when your parents, your uncle, Grandpa, and I were talking about it all the time? When we were out to breakfast, the conversation might be about the rise of neo-Nazism, the possible defunding of Planned Parenthood, women’s rights in general, the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, our criminal justice system, and targeting people because of the color of their skin, their religion, where they came from, or how they got here. You’ve also heard us talk about how none of these things will matter if we end up having a nuclear war or go off the deep end when it comes to climate change. Immediately after the election, you heard us sound hopeless, frightened or angry. Yep, you saw us freaking out, and I’m sorry about that. You’re only four and a half. We should have been more careful.
But here’s the thing I want you to know: We aren’t helpless, and things aren’t hopeless. We may not work in the Senate or Congress or the White House, but we aren’t powerless either. We are strong as a family, and we’re strong as individuals. Don’t ever think, I can’t fight back, because you can. Whenever you think, Oh, this is too hard or too dangerous, or Whatever I could do would be too small to make a difference, I want you to remember the people in your own family who faced variations of what the president-elect and his cronies are threatening.”
See goes on to write about history, and how her grandson, who is of Chinese descent like she is, is part of a bigger story. She writes to him of a time during the election of 1876, when “swing votes were tied to the issue of Chinese immigration in the same way that immigration was a hot topic during this election cycle. Rutherford Hayes endorsed Chinese exclusion and won the election. In the following election, James Garfield also carried the torch of anti-Chinese immigration into office. (From those days to now, every presidential election has fanned the flames of anti-immigration…hate and fear are reliable, predictable, and effective political tools.) All this led eventually to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred the entry of all Chinese immigrants to the United States…It also declared all Chinese totally ineligible for naturalized citizenship. This clause alone (she writes), allowed the United States to join Nazi Germany and South Africa as the only nations ever to withhold naturalization purely on racial grounds.”
She goes on to tell of the many laws and policies that were put in place making life difficult for the Chinese who were already here, even if they were born here and already citizens. Anti-marriage laws, housing discrimination, property ownership limits, and no wall, but instead Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay, an immigration station whose only purpose was to keep the Chinese out. How, she asks her grandson, are we here?
Her answer to him is what Paul’s answer is to the Philippians, struggling with internal strife and external oppression, with Paul himself writing from a prison cell, likely to be executed. In that atmosphere, surrounded by oppression and filled with much of what we feel today – anger, frustration, rage, pain – from that place he writes – be joyful! This is not Paul’s glib sermon on the “power of positive thinking” or a suggestion that all you need to do is put a smile on your face during your suffering. It is an awareness born of a long history with pain, a deep relationship with the millimeter progress scale that is justice, a long, long, long moral arc.
Throughout the letter, Paul encourages this Jesus-group in Philippi to persevere, to keep up the practices of that group, to develop a resiliency, a pliability in the face of stress. He encourages them to not only show the values of this little “family of Christ” to the world outside, but first and foremost to one another. It’s what one commentary on this passage called, “holy friendships.” These are special kinds of friendships, not run-of-the-mill folks who you are friendly with, or even frequent dinner guests. These are the people you call in a crisis, the ones who have your back (and whose back you have), the friends who are there when the chips are down and you have nothing to offer them but your struggle and pain. You might be related to them by blood, maybe by choice. What valuable resources friends like that are! I hope you have some. Actually, I know that you ARE some for each other, and that says who we are as a church more than anything.
What Lisa See writes to her grandson in a collection called, Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times, is that his own family is this kind of holy friendship, as well as the diverse collection of people to whom they have attached themselves, driven by the empathy for others so often created by our own hardships. She tells him that they really aren’t (stereotypically) powerful people but, “as the Chinese say, The collapse of a dam begins with an ant hole. She tells him the story of his ancestors, not all light and love, but with an orientation towards freedom, justice and hope. She tells him of an accusation of spying against great-grandparents by the FBI that becomes a funny family tale to be told over and over at celebrations. She tells him of the joy, not always happiness, but the joy, the resilient, pliable joy of that holy friendship-family. And she concludes with this – “In honor of my great-grandfather and grandparents, who fought against discrimination and hate in their own lives…we have a responsibility to do our part by being vigilant and helping to defend and protect…Oh, Henry, we’re going to have a lot of fun being mischievous, using our best tricks, and marching along together as two ants. Do you want to know who else will be with us? Mommy, Daddy, Grandpa, Uncle Chris, and so many more. There’s hope and power in that.”
Paul packs a lot into nine verses of his letter, right at the end. Here, according to Paul, is what you ought to do, holy friendship-family:
1. Affirm and love one another, standing united in Christ – so that’s not just loving one another, but affirming each other. Listening to one another’s stories, being the place where you will be heard – which we know is a rare location – and looking for the goodness in one another.
2. Help your friends through conflict with one another – please notice it’s not just help your friends through conflict, but through conflict with one another. Yikes. I think we all just got a little uncomfortable right then. Which brings us to this strange word…
3. Practice gentleness and forbearance with one another. OK, gentleness is not the strange word, but forbearance sure is. What the heck is that? No one uses that word anymore, but it has a depth of meaning. Forbearance is comprised of patience, offering the benefit of the doubt and maybe even some mercy. More than this forbearance is that deep friendship, which is not froufrou, happy, lovey-dovey all the time. It is the willingness to be vulnerable and to bear another person’s vulnerability, the suppleness of soul that allows us to struggle and stick, to wrestle and remain, to tear and also to trust. This we are to practice, to trust in, and, at times, to depend on.
4. Meditate on things that are true, honorable and worthy of praise. Here’s the only real nod to the “power of positive thinking.” I don’t advise anyone to smile through their pain, nor do I think that denial is a healthy approach – AND – I also know that we, in part, create what we see…and when we work together to deconstruct the negative realities in front of us, only then can we reconstitute new identities, new understandings of ourselves, and the world, and the divine. When we look for hope, when we expect and seek it, when we keep knocking, the door will be answered. There’s no need for “pollyanna” sugar-coating, but there is a need for hope. There’s always a place for hope.
5. Share the peace of Christ with each other – I know that we do this ritually every Sunday morning, though we as often say “Hi” as to offer the words of peace from our tradition. That’s not what is meant here. This is the reminder that we give to one another as we are surrounded by the wind and storm of the moment, that there is a rainbow to come. It is the gift of the peace that really does pass our understanding that allows us to say – it gets better. I don’t know how or when,
but it does. So we also…
6. Rejoice in God, and take our prayers to God. It is a blessing to know that there is a place you can go, a place within us and beyond us, where we can find respite and a reserve. If you don’t think that sending requests to an invisible entity in space makes much sense, good. Go with that. It’s not sense that you’re trying to make with prayer, it’s work on the heart and soul – which are rarely rational. There is a deep truth in creating a prayer life. It can help us to lament what is not yet present, and to imagine and seek it, too. You can start with what Anne Lamott calls the three basic prayers – “Help me, thank you and wow.” My guess is that if you start with those three, it’s probably where you’ll end, too.
The Quaker writer and teacher, Parker Palmer says that, “Heartbreak is an inevitable and painful part of life. But there are at least two ways for the heart to break: it can break open into new life, or break apart into shards of sharper and more widespread pain.
A brittle heart will explode into a thousand pieces, and sometimes get thrown like a fragment grenade at the perceived source of its pain — there’s a lot of that going around these days. But a supple heart will break open into a greater capacity to hold life’s suffering and its joy — in a way that allows us to say, “The pain stops here.”
The joy that Paul calls his people to is not a joy born of total satisfaction, nor a joy that arises from tranquility or something as elusive as happiness. The joy he calls them to is a broken-hearted joy, born not in spite of their pain but because of it. He calls them to complicated healing, to work out their own salvation, as we have said during this series, with fear and trembling. He calls them to accountability – not only with one another, but accountability with themselves and with God, perhaps to see if some of them are taking any of this seriously. For why we may be able to layer all kinds of subterfuge and absorb any amount of denial, God knows our hearts. And I would assume that the impending approach of justice would be terrifying to some who have hidden for a long time – almost as terrifying as a forced silence, the fear of the trial, which typically comes long before any courtroom, and the heartbreak of feeling alone with the trauma.
As we face the wounds of our own world, some inflicted on us personally, others we live as vicarious trauma, it is incumbent upon us as followers of Jesus to bear witness to his model, stepping into the fray, speaking out for the vulnerable, holding onto our righteous anger as a healthy and divine response to injustice, and raising our voices. It is equally important that we seek the shelter of the garden, the mountaintop, the lake when we need to, bringing our grief, our trepidation, our hopes to God in prayer and taking our steps in the kind of love that God gives to us – grace-filled, willing to bear suffering, and hopeful in the face of hopelessness.
Let that be our orientation – trusting in God, reaching for wholeness, our sights set on a world that we believe, sometimes despite the evidence, is about to turn.
May God’s loving arms surround victims of abuse and violence, and may God’s justice break our hearts – breaking them open so they may never close to the world again.