Anticipating a challenging fall

There remains a lot of uncertainty about the coming fall semester: the only certainty seems to be a consensus that it will be challenging. To get a sense of what fall might look like, I encourage you to read the communication(s) from MSU as well as to check out several Inside Higher Education articles that envision what an average day in the life of an undergraduate student might look like as well as for a faculty member.

If you’d like a slightly different experience for envisioning what the fall might look like, a graduate student, Cait S Birby, simulated several scenarios for what the fall might look like for people who are often marginalized: people who have disabilities, live with people with significant health challenges, and/or identify as LGBTQ. There is both a scenario for an undergraduate student, faculty, and graduate student. The scenarios give a sense of how overwhelming being on campus might be this fall.

This past Monday we hosted our first hybrid study – some of us were at the house while others joined the study online. While it was very good to chat with folks outside the house after we finished, the study itself was disappointing. It took us an extra 15 minutes to set up, as the original plan of being outside didn’t work. We then set up a computer attached to the television, which meant that those of us at the house no longer had access to communal chat. Because of social distancing, all (4) of us in the house were seated far from the computer microphone and not all of us could be seen by those online. With the added challenges of wearing masks, it was hard for those online to hear us. The need to speak unnaturally loud, the sense that those online were not hearing us well and that those in the house were not as easily able to participate, plus the seating arrangement that felt less conducive to building community, all of these things contributed to making it disappointing.

Even as I was disappointed in the study, I was very glad to have tried it. Next week, we will try again – and hopefully work out some of the difficulties so that we know how and if hybrid studies can work for us before school starts in the fall. Most importantly, seeing the challenges that we as a small group faced in trying a hybrid study, I became more aware of how hard the fall will be for all those trying to meet in person.

Please pray for all those who are now making plans and working through the challenges to allow people to meet in a way that is most conducive to learning while also taking into account each other’s safety and well-being.

Added August 4, 2020: For another perspective on the challenges in teaching online and in-person, see this article from Inside Higher Ed.

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.

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

How lonely is the city

“How lonely is the city that once was full of people!” is how the Old Testament book of Lamentations begins. These words suggest that the life of the city is dependent on people and the relationships between people. When these are absent the city itself feels lonely and “the roads to Zion mourn” (Lam 1:4). 

The other week we began studying Lamentations in response to everything happening in the world because of COVID-19. The grief-filled words remind us that lament is an important part of a life of faith. We lament to express frustration and even our anger for the way things are. The book of Lamentations helps with that, as “Lamentations is a searing book of taut, charged poetry on the subject of unspeakable suffering. The poems emerge from a deep wound, a whirlpool of pain, toward which the images, metaphors, and voices of the poetry can only point.” Kathleen O’Connor, “Lamentations” in NIBC, 879

Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, in his book Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, talks about how lament gives voice to the grief and sadness that result from the task of “reality,” or honestly identifying the state of things. This can be especially challenging when others do not share our concern. We hear this also in Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?” (Lam. 1:12). O’Connor echoes Brueggemann:

“The book of Lamentations practices truth-telling. It refuses denial and reverses amnesia by inviting readers into pain and affliction in all their rawness. It urges us to face suffering, to speak of it, to be dangerous proclaimers of the truth that society wants to repress. … Advice like ‘Get over it,’ Get on with it,’ ‘Look on the bright side,’ reinforces the dehumanization of the sufferers by refusing to accept their stammering efforts toward truth” and healing. (O’Connor, 892). 

Wherever you find yourself in this journey, may we be supportive of each other, being people that “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). In our communities may we share words of comfort and hope in the midst of struggle. Like with the book of Lamentations, may our “stinging cries for help, [our] voices begging God to see, [our] protests to God who hides behind a cloud – all create a space where communal and personal pain can be reexperienced, seen, and perhaps healed.” (O’Connor, 879).

– Mitchell Eithun and Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink

Pandemic Grief

Jessica Wrobelski speaks graciously regarding the grief connected to this pandemic in her article, “Jesus Wept: Pandemic Grief and the Fifth Sunday of Lent.” She notes that, while we in the United States are likely facing more suffering here on account of illness and death from COVID-19,

“we are nevertheless collectively experiencing a kind of grief right now due to the practice of social distancing and other early impacts of the pandemic on our lives. The loss of daily interaction with friends and coworkers, the cancellation of travel plans and events that we have looked forward to, the economic losses, and our inability to gather as communities of faith—these losses are real, and so is our grief.”

Wrobelski highlights that the gospel for the fifth Sunday of Lent, the story of Lazarus’s death, presents Jesus’ own grief in light of loss. She highlights that Jesus does not “‘skip over’ the experience of human grief.” Recognizing this “should free us to acknowledge our own grief—to experience all the emotions of sadness and anger and disappointment and frustration that come with real losses—even if we ultimately have faith and hope in God’s promise to bring life from death.”

She concludes by encouraging as “to allow ourselves time and space to grieve, to name our sorrows and losses and even to bring our accusations before God. Faith in these times does not mean stoically denying our human emotions, but trusting that God is present in and through all of it.”