Wednesday, November 30, 2011

After the Anguished Cry

We talked last blog about bringing our pain to speech.  The book of Lamentations is brutal poetry about the plight not only of "Zion" but of the particular people as individual persons who inhabited the city after the Babylonian destruction.  It broke through the numbness of the horror to scream out to God the agony of loss and the ravages of war.  It speaks out of the weariness of repeated trauma to say that Zion "has no one to comfort her"....that in addition to all the horror, all the wreckage, there is the loneliness of being without consulation.
Through it all God does not speak.....why?  I believe that God does not speak because God is busy honoring the pain of Zion by bearing witness to it through Holy Attention.  God is attentive to Zion's telling of her story.

Many scholars believer that the part of Isaiah beginning with Isaiah 40 (often called 'Second Isaiah') is a response to the challenges of Lamentations. After listening til Zion in thru speaking, how does God respond?  God opens with these words:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and cry to her
that she has served her term,
   that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from teh Lord's
     hand
  double for all her sins.  (Isaiah 40:1-2)

God is moved by the lament to comfort grieving Zion.  What is more, God is going to admit that what has happened to her isn't fair!  God doesn't enter into an argument with the cultural belief that everything that happens is God's doing....intellectual discourse isn't what's called for here.....God just says, 'you're right, you got far more than you deserved; you were punished way beyond what you had coming.'

So far, nearly all of this could have been done by a reasonably good trauma therapist (listen, don't interrupt, don't run away, acknowledge that the trauma wasn't your fault)....but now God is going to do something really amazing.....God is going to commit to a level of deep, intimate, incarnational involvement.  The passage starts out pretty standard triumphant stuff:

See, the Lord God comes with might
  and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
   and his recompense before him.  (Isaiah 40:10)

But then listen to the shift:

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
   he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
  and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:11)

God listens; acknowledges the pain and the unfairness of it all.....then God commits to personally gathering in the strayed ones-carrying those who can't walk and leading the others gently.

How different this picture is from the one many of us have been given about how God feels about us expressing our pain, our anger, our sadness.  We've been told that it's "all for a reason" that "God has a special plan" that we should "praise Jesus anyhow."

What scripture actually teaches us, here and elsewhere, is that God honors our pain by listening when we cry out, and that God has promised God's intimate involvement in making things right.

As christians, we believe that Christmas marks the moment of God coming in flesh to do just that.  The cry of longing that begins Advent will culminate in God becoming vulnerable, tiny, poor and fragile....just like us.

What happens after the 'anguished cry'?  God shows up.  Then....and now.  The timetable may not be what we expect, or want.  But God does come: to listen, to bear witness, to comfort, to heal.  How might things be different if we really laid claim to that truth.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Advent Begins In A Cry Of Anguish

This coming Sunday marks the beginning of Advent.  Advent is the season of the Christian year (four Sundays and Christmas Eve) in which we look forward to and prepare for Christmas.  We hang wreaths and decorations in our sanctuaries and each week we light another Advent Candle to point out that we're getting closer to the day that we celebrate as Jesus' birthday, the coming of the Christ Child.

The greenery we hang up has for centuries been a reminder of hope in the middle of harsh winter...spring will come again.  We do children's moments about waiting and hoping and trusting.  For most (thankfully) of these children that hoping takes place in a cacoon of safety inside a loving family.  But the traditions from which we draw most of our scriptures for this season and many of our hymns are traditions forged in anguish and agony.

One of the primary Old Testament sources for scripture readings during Advent, and especially this year, is the prophet Isaiah-specifically the second half of the book of Isaiah.  Now Isaiah was writing in response to a horrible stuation.  In 597 B.C.E. the Babylonians seized Jerusalem.  During the next fifty years they carried off about 5000 adult males in forced deportations.  But the worst situation was for those left behind.  The city had been destroyed; the Babylonians, know for harshness and cruelty to enemies, engaged in their own form of ethnic cleansing; and people starved to death in the street.  Babies died at their mother's breast and there are indications that some resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Out of these situations come the cries of the wounded and abandoned:

"All her people groan
     as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
    to revive their strength.
Look, O Lord, and see
    how worthless I have become." (Lamentations 1:11)

"O Lord God f hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your
            people's prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of
              tears,
and give them tears to drink in full
        measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves."  (Psalm 80:4-6)

"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down..."  (Isaiah 64:1)

You get the picture.  They're done...finished...over.  They feel like even God....no, especially God has forsaken them.

So what's this got to do with us?  With you and me?  With Christmas?

Read back through the prayer poems above.  Do any of them sound like ways that you've felt?  Have you ever struggled with a depression so deep that even crawling out of bed to brush your teeth was an effort?  Have you dealt with a wound or a trauma in your life so harsh that you felt like you'd become worthless?  Have you encountered a sadness in which being "fed with the bread of tears" sounds just right for where you've been?

Each of us knows (though hopefully not to this extreme-though I do not rule it out) something about exile and anguish.  The difference is that these writers and those they wrote for found a voice to cry out.  Our culture does not like for us to cry out.  It rocks the boat.  It points out things that people don't want to see.  Things about abuse and poverty; loneliness and isolation; homelessness, mental illness, addiction, and pain.  And there is not a single one of us who has not been touched by (personally or through someone we love) these moments of exile.

Scripture says that when we cry out.....God shows up.  Now, you may be saying, "sure takes God a long time!" and I would not argue with you.  But Advent is the season in which we start by crying out and end by celebrating that God showed up in Jesus.  It is a statement of faith that when we cry out now.....God still shows up.

I do not know what your cry is this Advent.  But I would invite....no urge....you to find a place where that cry can be heard this Advent.  Where you can begin to latch on to the hope that God has, and will continue to show up.  Don't let your cry be silenced.  For our cry breaks through the lies and the oppression to give us energy of new ways of seeing and acting and living.....and when we cry out, God WILL show up.

If you're in our neck of the woods, drop by Commonwealth Baptist in Alexandria, VA.  Introduce yourself.  I'd love to meet you.  Let's talk about this some more.

Shalom,
Stephen

Monday, November 21, 2011

Commonwealth Baptist-An Uncommon Place

Hi, I'm Stephen Price, Interim Pastor of Commonwealth Baptist Church and this is my first post.

My two goals here are going to be: to (hopefully) reach out to folks who might not otherwise know about Commonwealth Baptist in Alexandria VA and help them get to know a little about us; and also to share some of the thoughts that I'm having each week as I move toward Sunday's worship service.

Commonwealth's webpage can be found at www.uncommon-church.com.  One of our guiding principles as a congregation can be found on the sign outside our building-All Are Welcome-No Exceptions.  This means EVERYBODY.  Gay or straight, believer or seeker, liberal or conservative, male or female....You Are Welcome Here.  Why?  Because we believe that Jesus welcomes all of us; no matter where we are on our journey.  Our job with each other is to share our journeys in a way that lets folks grow and stretch at their own pace.

What holds us together then?  I'd say that it's basically three things: 1) we're all honestly seeking to know what is true about the Christian faith through study, prayer, small groups and worship (and that doesn't rule out questions or doubts either-these are a respected part of many people's story); 2) we are committed to finding ways to care about the world around us-taking seriously what Jesus said about "if you've done it to the least of these, you've done it to me"; and finally, 3) in the course of our 'inward journeys' of study, prayer, and worship and our 'outward journeys' of caring for the world around us we've found that we really like and care about each other-warts and all. 

We're nowhere near perfect.  Far from it.  But we are a growing, deepening community of faith committed to engaging with what we hear God saying to us and trying to honestly live that out in our daily lives.

And....suprise!  We're BAPTISTS.  That's right....Baptists.  We are affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists.  Now Baptists have traditionally held a belief called the "Priesthood of All Believers."  This means that we believe that each of us has the responsibility to read and study and interprete scripture for themselves....there are no creeds, nobody tells you what you have to believe....coming to that is your responsibility.  You can see now why we might have such a broad collection of folks represented on a Sunday morning!  It also means that some Sundays there could be a lot of folks who don't agree with what I've just preached....and that's okay.  Some Sundays nearly everybody will agree...and that's okay too.  The important thing will be that folks think about what they heard and listen for what God might be trying to say to them through it.

So, you might ask, What DO you believe?  And that would be a Great Question.  For starters, I would say that those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus as Christians believe that Jesus was the unique expression of God's love and His life a living picture of what God is like and we want to accept that love and imitate that life.  Now different ones of us believe a lot of other things (and sometimes different things) as well....but I'd say that this is the basic starting place. 

For some who worship with us and are part of Commonwealth's life, what they would say is more like I want to know if Jesus was the unique expression of God's love and if His life really does show us what God is like.  Here they find friends, fellowship, and an openness that let's them be who they are and explore the Christian faith at their own pace.

A last thing that I think is important about this group of folks.  Sometimes we refer to ourselves as "The Church of the Misfit Toys."  What this means to me is that many of us have been hurt along the way....some of us hurt very badly....some of us hurt by people who called themselves Christians.  Church for many of us hasn't always been a place where we felt safe or welcome.  We want Commonwealth to be a place where people can come to heal their wounds.  In my other life I am a psychotherapist.  One of the primary things I work with is trauma.  One of the first things people need if they're going to heal from trauma or woundedness is a "safe place."  We want Commonwealth to be that kind of place.

So this is my first post on this blog and I've ranted on a bit about who I think we are at Commonwealth.  I've done this because I want you to know where I'm coming from.  I hope you'll come back and join me here on the blog...maybe even leave a comment now and then.  More than that I hope that maybe you'll drop in on us at Commonwealth Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA.  We'd love to meet you.

Next blog I'll share some of where I'm headed in thinking about this coming Sunday's sermon.  This Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent-the time when we get ready for Christmas by giving some thought to what this 'God in the flesh' stuff is all about.  Hope you check it out.

Til then.....
Shalom (oh yeah, that's a Hebrew word...means 'God's peace'....we'll talk about that sometime),
Stephen