Pentecost and cutting off the breath of God

During quarantine I have been recording multi-track handbell videos of hymn arrangements. Since this coming Sunday is Pentecost (the arrival of the spirit in Acts 2) I posted a recording of the hymn “Breathe On Me, Breathe of God.”

It didn’t occur to me for several hours how my video may have been inappropriate (or at best, awkward) to post just a day after black man George Floyd was pinned by white offers, screamed “I Can’t Breathe” and then died in custody. This story (and the countless others like it) continues to fuel both righteous anger and deep complacency in the United States.

As I began to consider Pentecost in this context, I was filled with anger. While Pentecost is (and has been since Ancient times) one of the most lively days in the life of the Church, I began to lament, knowing that God’s gift of the spirit — God’s breath — has been denied to so many people of color in the United States. At the very beginning of creation God’s spirit actively participates and “hovers over the waters” (Gen 1:2). God’s breathe continues to form and reform us. When we hurt others, we both deface the image of God and deny God’s gift of breath. We deny the gift that God will “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17).

For many of us it’s easy to think that we don’t commit violent crimes and therefore “we’re good”. But Jesus offers a stunning rebuke to our complacency by describing in the Sermon on the Mount what life in God’s kingdom is all about:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment … So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:21-24)

Maybe Jesus knows that anger can lead to hatred and hatred can lead to violence. Maybe Jesus knows if left unchecked anger leads to unhealthy relationships, to mental and physical anguish. Anger has the power to destroy us and to destroy communities, just as police brutality does again and again.  For Jesus, living in the kingdom of God (and in true communion with God) is about reconciliation: “first be reconciled to your brother or sister”. For Jesus, building the blessed community involves acknowledging our pain and our brokenness and working toward restoring our relationships with one another.

And anger is not “good” or “bad,” by itself. It may more useful to acknowledge, as with any emotion, that anger can be helpful and harmful. Righteous anger has the power to move us to action, particularly after an injustice has happened. Jesus, speaking truth to power, became angry with those who upheld unjust systems. Later in the book of Matthew, Jesus says to the pharisees: “woe to you…for you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23). While these leaders “followed the rules” for presenting temple offerings and sacrifices, they failed to enact the intent behind the law: justice and mercy and faith.

As a so-called Christian nation, we are so far from pursuing justice for black and brown people. Who is it, really, that can’t breathe? We claim that we live by the Holy Spirit, we ask for it to “break me, melt me, mold me, fill me”. But do we really trust and follow the spirit’s power do so? The book of Acts tracks the movement of the Spirit after Pentecost and describes ways that it led the apostles to pursue justice. Early on Peter bears to the spirit’s power to convict the counsel or Jesus’s unjust killing:

“The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God  rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.'” (Acts 5:27-32)

This language of “whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree” (used several times in Acts) has deeply painful overtones in the United States, where many historians observe that today’s victims of police brutality are much like victims of lynching after the Civil War. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone writes:

“The lynching tree—so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgatha – should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’s death. But it does not. In fact the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections on Jesus’s cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was essentially a first century lynching.” (30)

Jesus Christ already died for our sins. How long do black and brown people have to die in the United States for the sin of racism? Floyd’s is just one of countless black lives lost to police brutality in the United States. With the prophets and the Psalmist we cry “How long, O Lord?” Because when we kill image-bearers, we kill God.

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern.

Deconstructing and Reorientation

In our study of the Psalms, we are using Walter Brueggemann’s framework of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Brueggemann explains

that our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of (a) being securely oriented, (b) being painfully disoriented and (c) being surprisingly reoriented. This general way of speaking can apply to our self-acceptance, our relations to significant others, and our participation in public issues. It can permit us to speak of passages, the life cycle, stages of growth, and identity crisis. Most of all it may provide us a way to think about the Psalms in relation to our common human experience, for each of God’s children is in transit along the flow of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 14.

As Brueggemann notes, these concepts of disorientation and reorientation are helpful not only for looking at the Psalms but also for talking about life and faith. Life is full of moments and seasons of disorientation, such as this pandemic, transitioning into or from grad school, new jobs, new relationships, losses, and more. These seasons of disorientation lead to new patterns and rhythms but also to new questions. Sometimes these questions involve a deconstruction (or unravelling) of one’s faith.

When one’s faith starts to unravel, it can be comforting to hear others’ “stories of deconstruction,” as Ian Harber notes. In doing so, Harber “found people who understood what it was like to deconstruct your faith and rebuild it from scratch.” However, he also notes the challenges of reconstructing or reorienting: he “didn’t have the tools to rebuild.” Thus, as much as he appreciated those who had helped him in his time of disorientation, he also argues that “Helping people deconstruct their faith without also helping put it back together again is lazy, irresponsible, dangerous, and isolating. The goal of deconstruction should be greater faithfulness to Jesus, not mere self-discovery or signaling one’s virtue.”

While I find Harber’s critique of progressive Christianity to be lacking nuance and grace, he raises a very good question about what happens when deconstruction appears to be the goal instead of part of the journey of faith. The question is especially relevant for those of us whose lives are shaped by academia, where deconstruction is strongly encouraged. Harber argues that “Doubt and questions need not catalyze a pendulum swing from belief to unbelief. If worked out in healthy, thoughtful Christian community—and with an abiding connection to Christ, our true vine (John 15)—they can actually deepen faith and strengthen roots, producing a life where we bear fruit and withstand the fierce winds of a secular age.” The only challenge, though, is that for most people, faith shifting, along with reconstruction and growth in faith is hardly simple. There’s no clear and obvious set of guidelines to follow.

Brueggemann’s language of disorientation and reorientation thus provides a hopeful perspective for describing the challenges when life and faith does not happen the way we expect. There’s also hope for the journey of faith. As Brueggemann notes,

“The other movement of human life is the surprising move from disorientation to a new orientation that is quite unlike the old status quo. This is not an automatic movement that can be presumed or predicted. Nor is it a return to the old form, a return to normalcy as though nothing had happened. It is rather ‘all things new’. When it happens it is always a surprise, always a gift of graciousness, and always an experience that evokes gratitude … Such experiences include all those gifts of friendship and caring, all those gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness, all those risky signs of hope in public life, all experiences that may touch us deeply and announce that God has not left the world to chaos (c.f. Isa 45:18-19).”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 19-20

Lamentations and Transformation

One of my prayers coming away from Lamentations is based on the poet’s petitions that invite transformation. The petitions in chapter 5 urge God to remember, look, restore and renew (5:1, 5:21). This is a powerful pattern that compares God’s great acts of deliverance in the past (remember) to the current reality of suffering (look) and implores God to repair this breach (restore) so that a new future is possible (renew). It is a process of transformation and seeking help from the living God who “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (3:33).

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Reflections on Lamentations

The book of Lamentations is hard to read. Its five chapters contain some of the most angry and resentful passages in the Bible. While even the darkest Psalms usually contain some words of assurance, the book of Lamentations only has a few hopeful verses.

The lamenting poet knows the promises of God but feels like none of them are true. “He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light” (3:2) is in direct contrast to God’s creative action which “separated the light from the darkness” (Gen 1:4). When we are suffering or when all we see is suffering, we question God’s promises or we wonder if they have been subverted (3:35-36). Along with the poet we might say “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘gone is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.’” (3:17-18)

During the pandemic, some of the words in Lamentations might resonate with us as we try to understand a “new normal” separated from other people. It is a time of food insecurity when people “search for bread” (1:11), when the city is lonely that “was once full of people” (1:1) and cultural activities are suspended as “the young men [have left] their music” (5:14). In the United States it is also a time when economic and racial injustice are more clearly seen, bringing into question the true “greatness” of the country. Speaking about Jerusalem, the poet writes that onlookers sarcastically jeer and say, “is this city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of the earth?” (2:15)

I appreciate that this book is in the Bible because it speaks about reality. Suffering is a prominent part of the human experience and this book witnesses to the way that God’s people have long wrestled with the problem of human suffering. I believe that these words suggest that anger and lament are authentic expressions of faith rather than doubt. Too often in our culture we ignore pain and suffering and say “look on the bright side” or “just trust in Jesus,” like band-aids for flesh wounds. The pain of sufferings is even described in these terms: “he has made my flesh and my skin waste a way and has broken my bones” (3:4).

Liturgically speaking, what I learn from Lamentations is the necessity of lament: during times of crisis it is important to name the realities of suffering. Christian worship usually includes a time of confession to acknowledge sins, seek forgiveness and receive assurance. Perhaps this pattern happens too quickly. The chorus of “Great Is They Faithfulness,” one of the great hymns of assurance, comes from Lamentations 3, which has some of the only words of hope in the entire book:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:21-24

The fact that these words are found among deep laments of sorrow makes them all the more profound. While we might seek a quick resolution from the sin and injustice of the world, the poet struggled through some 64 verses of lament before “calling to mind” this great hope, suggesting that we could do more to acknowledge our own realities in worship. Not only is our grief and suffering acceptable to bring to God, but we share it in Jesus.

– Mitchell Eithun, Pastoral Intern

Lamentations and Christ

Crying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” Jesus quotes Psalm 22 from the cross, identifying his suffering with the Psalmist. Reading Lamentations 3 reminded me of Psalm 22. Both Lamentations 3 and Psalm 22 describe trapped (Lam 3:7, Ps 22:16) and threatened by lions (Lam 3:10, Ps 22:13). Further, Lamentations 4 perfectly describes Jesus’s descent to the dead: “The Lord’s anointed, the breath of our life was taken in their pits” (4:20).  In Orthodox Christianity, Lamentations 3 is read on Good Friday. To me this association between the crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem  makes a powerful statement: Jesus suffers with us.  Jesus is present in our pain because his suffering is not unlike the reality of exile. If Jesus’s ministry, and the cross in particular, occurred in the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), then Jesus’s death solidarity with all who suffer, including those who resonate with the deep suffering in Lamentations. The poet laments that “the punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished” (Lam 4:22) while Jesus cries, “it is finished” (John 19:30).

A cause for hope is that the ministry of Jesus sets in motion a new reality, the kingdom of God, which seeks reverses these painful realities brought about by iniquity and injustice.  In the midst of exile the poet laments that God “has made my ways crooked” (Lam 3:9). Preparing the way for Jesus in the midst of another occupying superpower (Rome), John the Baptist quotes the Isaiah’s promise of deliverance of exile in Isaiah 40, announcing that “the crooked [paths] shall be made straight” (Luke 3:5). Those under oppression in Babylon lament that “with a yoke on our necks we are hard driven; we are weary and given no rest” (Lam 5:5), but Jesus provides the parallel antidote: “come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mat 11:28-30)

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge Intern Pastor

Delight and the Song of Songs

To celebrate Easter, we’ve been looking at the Song of Songs in our studies on Monday evenings. It’s a book that celebrates delight and human bodies, which is especially helpful in this time of a pandemic when life feels a little less delightful and moving our lives on to zoom has made us feel a little less embodied.

Song of Songs is a bit of a confusing book, at least partially because it’s an unusual genre in the Bible (e.g., a love poem) and Christianity has not always been very good at talking about sexuality. The following two reflections have helped us appreciate the text more fully.

Laura de Jong, who is a pastor, speaks passionately about how this Song awakens delight and longing in all of us, irrelevant of our marital status:

“Because this greatest of songs is about many things, but not just about human sexuality. And its not just an allegory of God’s relationship with his people. It’s also about longing, and excitement, and living deeply, and sucking the marrow out of life, and whimsy, and delight, and beauty, and language, and community. And it’s about God. What he has done, what he is doing, what he will do. The Song of Songs is an invitation to life.”

Laura de Jong, “The Greatest of Songs.”

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a theologically profound article about sexuality and desire:

“Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.”

Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace.”

As the article is quite theologically dense, if you’d like some help understanding it, Debra Rienstra, a writer and professor, has summarized his work: Rowan William for dummies on sexuality.

Hope this Easter

It has felt odd celebrating Easter this year, as it’s hard to celebrate when we do not get to be physically with many of those we care about. Besides the challenges of social distancing, more and more of us here in the United States are experiencing COVID-19 close up, either knowing someone who has become sick or becoming sick ourselves. There is tension between the sadness and uncertainty of this time and the hope and joy of Easter. 

Tish Harrison Warren has written an encouraging article in Christianity Today that proclaims the hope of Easter in the middle of the challenges of this time:

“The truth of the Resurrection is wild and free. It possesses us more than we could ever possess it and rolls on happily with no need of us, never bending to our opinions of it. If the claims of Christianity are true, they are true with or without me. . . . .

Believers and skeptics alike often approach the Christian story as if its chief value is personal, subjective, and self-expressive. We come to faith primarily for how it comforts us or helps us cope or lends a sense of belonging. However subtly, we reduce the Resurrection to a symbol or a metaphor. Easter is merely an inspirational tradition, a celebration of rebirth and new life that calls us to the best version of ourselves and helps give meaning to our lives. But the actualities that we now face in a global pandemic—the overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, the collapsing global economy, and the terrifying fragility of our lives—ought to put an end to any sentimentality about the Resurrection. . . .

I am a Christian today not because it answers all my questions about the world or about our current suffering. It does not. And not because I think it is a nice, coherent moral order by which to live my life. And not because I grew up this way or have fond feelings about felt boards and hymn sings. And not because it motivates justice or helps me to know how to vote. I am a Christian because I believe in the Resurrection. . . . If Jesus is risen in actual history, with all the palpability of flesh, fingers, bone, and blood, there is hope that our mourning will be comforted and that death will not have the final word.”

In honor of Easter, we’re going forward with a new study on Song of Songs. We start tonight. Join us! We’ll keep looking at Lamentations on Saturday, though, holding the tension of the sadness of this time.

Good Friday and Sabbath

Lent is almost over. Good Friday is day 39 of 40. This has been an unusual Lent, with more lament and inconvenience than usual. 

As I have grown in faith I have come to realize that the death of Jesus has meaning on many different theological levels: being enthroned as true ruler of the world, exposing the scapegoat mechanism of the empire, providing atonement for sin, modeling the way of self-sacrifice, standing in solidarity with those who are unjustly punished, becoming the suffering servant. How does the death of Jesus resonate with you?

After spending some time with resources from the Bible Project, the interpretation that resonates with me this year is that of Sabbath rest. Perhaps the most famous reference to this idea is the the sign of Jonah: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40). Drawing on eschatological notions of a future Sabbath (mostly from the Psalms), some scholars have concluded that the Sabbath rest that Jesus experiences while his body is in the tomb is a prefiguring of a cosmic rest that all people will some day experience in Christ.

While for many people the pandemic is not a time of “rest,” it is a time of great inconvenience in which we must refrain from our routines and community activities. In this way our experiences reflect the  “inconveniences” of the Sabbath such as prohibitions against buying and selling. On a larger scale this time might reflect the intent of the year of Jubilee — a total socio-economic reset for the land and the people, which is presented as a super-Sabbath (Lev 25). Our current “rest” has only come because of a time of great “reset,” and one that reveals economic and racial injustice in our US context. 

But there is hope. The effort for a more just world in which all creation flourishes together is headed by Jesus, the one who starts by announcing the year of Jubilee (Luke 4:19) and is crowned the “Lord of the Sabbath.” In this paradoxical time of rest and inconvenience and lament Jesus has gone before us and is with us now as we walk our own “lonesome valley.” We sojourn with Jesus wondering what we can learn from suffering, how we can grow in faith and what we might do in service of God’s great acts of re-creation. 

How is this time of quarantine like an extended time of Sabbath? What have you learned about yourself by being inconvenienced? How can this time draw you closer to God? I invite you to meditate on Jesus’s invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).

– Mitchell Eithun