Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The earthquake and the heart of God

I was two days into my two-year sojourn in Japan when the country paused to honor the 50th anniversary of the Tokyo earthquake. The country mourned the 120,000 lives that were lost on September 1, 1923 -- and took the opportunity to showcase the importance of public safety (every Japanese school kid knew that they were to get under a desk whenever the ground shook); and the progress made in mandating stronger building codes. The entire country invested a lot of financial and social capital in being prepared for seismic activity.

That helped last week, but not enough. The perfect storm of earthquake, tsunami and potential nuclear meltdown has brought a level of devastation that reverberates with us, a half world away.

We don't know what the ultimate financial and human cost will be, but it is more than our psyches can absorb. But it will not be as much as the aggregate cost of the Haiti earthquake last year, or the South Asia tsunami several years ago.

The world can be a dangerous place, often through no fault of our own -- even though there are those who attempt to ascribe blame and responsibility for what otherwise would be called a natural disaster. And often couch it in theological language. Hurricane Katrina was divine punishment, some said. Still others maintained that the earthquake in Haiti was a direct consequence of forsaken destiny. On the 50th anniversary of the Tokyo earthquake, I remember reading stories of vengeance against Korean people who were thought -- by some, to have caused the disaster.

There is a deep human temptation to respond to violence with violence. Tit for tat. We may be able to mitigate some of the geological violence-- but we can't control it. But we can -- and should, stand up to the physical, verbal and theological violence that flares in reaction. Even --and especially, if it means standing up to yourself.

And then there is the temptation to just get away from the violence of the earth gone wild. There is just too much misery. It either hurts too much -- or we become steeled against it.

There is another way to respond to the world's pain. Take it to the heart of God. That's what Jesus learned to do in his sojourn in the wilderness, which we commemorate each Lent. Jesus brought himself to the heart of God -- and by doing so he was then able to better see the divine in everyone else.

Take it to the heart of God -- through prayer, through giving, through whatever means available that will keep your heart open in the face of overwhelming misery or the temptation to respond with some sort of violence. That can be a part of a Lenten discipline.

Henri Nouwen used to say that the shortest distance between two people is God. At a time when so many have literally been swept away, may we resist the temptation of being swept up in attempts to spiritually escape (which is its own form of violence) or come down with pernicious explanations -- and instead stay grounded in God. Take it to the heart of God -- which mysteriously keeps us in closer relationship with one another. And can contribute to the binding of the world's brokenness.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The public processing of pain

It has been said that Twitter and Facebook are the electronic engines behind the waves of demonstrations that are sweeping across the Middle East. Social media have indeed kept people apprised of events, issued important information -- and have helped create a virus for change, but the real catalyst for these huge actions has been the courage to speak. And speak publicly.

In any and every totalitarian regime, the freedom to speak is the first thing that is taken away. Sharing hope or pain generates a power that is not easily controlled, and so any gatherings where people can converse become illegal. Offenders are hauled off and rendered silent -- for days, for years or forever. Fear becomes a cultural norm. With the exception of a few among the elite, the populace is marginalized -- unless and until the gatherings become so large and the voices become so loud that the power of it all cannot be stopped.

These are historic demonstrations, which will be remembered for generations, and which will reshape the future of each country. As we follow the unfolding of events in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, I keep being drawn to our less dramatic, but critically important weekly liturgical demonstrations, which have the capacity to transform lives as well as propose a reshaping of the future. I cannot escape the parallels between the two.

In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh kept the Jewish people silent by making them slaves. They groaned under their oppression. God heard their groaning (Exodus 2:3-4); and God responded by appointing Moses to lead them to freedom. In so doing, God announced that pain is not meant to be a normal social cost. The Exodus story is the foundation of the Passover liturgy. It is a liturgy that begins in pain -- and results in freedom.

Which is also the case in Christian worship. Worship is the public processing of pain. Eucharistic language is very clear about the pain of Jesus' death, and the celebration of his Resurrection. Our worship is designed so that people can freely offer up their individual or community pain in the prayers of the people, and bringing that pain up with us to the altar -- and then have it blessed and transformed through the receiving of bread and wine.

Our worship is a demonstration of hope rising out of hurt. It empowers people with that hope -- to a degree that they become committed to transform systems that render us silent, oppressed -- or exhausted (and sometimes all three). Liturgy practices a critique of our world. It proposes a love from God in Christ and from the Christ-centered community; which lives in some contrast to a culture that regards people anonymously at best -- and marginalized or oppressed at worst.

The demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen have released a huge groaning, and have exposed the limits of their local regime's despotic power. God invited Moses and his followers to hearken to an abiding power that defeated the armies of Pharaoh. Jesus beckons us to subscribe to a power beyond our knowing, and to a peace which surpasses all understanding.

The purpose of worship is to provide a framework for us to express our confusion and pain, and to receive God's blessing, freedom and love. All the elements of worship -- the choreography, the space, the music, the color -- are crafted in such a way that we are not just free to speak -- but free to have our imaginations unleashed so that we can -- with the living Christ, work together in order to create a world of abiding justice.