Category Archives: Grief

A Poor Imitation…

The Lord saw it, and it displeased him

that there was no justice.

He saw that there was no one,

and was appalled that there was no one to intervene;

so his own arm brought him victory,

and his righteousness upheld him.

He put on righteousness like a breastplate,

and a helmet of salvation on his head;

he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,

and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.

According to their deeds, so will he repay;

wrath to his adversaries, requital to his enemies;

to the coastlands he will render requital. (Isaiah 59:15b-18, NRSV)

I, like many of my friends and colleagues, am devastated and disappointed as a result of Saturday night’s verdict in the Trayvon Martin cased. The 18 months of waiting, the intense media scrutiny, the charged testimony, and the 16 1/2 hours of deliberations brought back a not-guilty verdict and released George Zimmerman. The thousands of hours of interviews, the fervor and anticipation in social media, and the attention to the minutia of race relations, community engagement and social stereotypes all lead to a seemingly forgone conclusion: George Zimmerman legally killed an unarmed teenager.

I tell you, I am disappointed……but not surprised. I am not surprised because what could a jury do when the prosecution argues none of the central factors that define the case, race, vigilantism and poor investigation? In a conversation with a dear friend and colleague, I expressed to him my utter dissatisfaction with the prosecution in the case. “They haven’t even proven to me that George Zimmerman is guilty, and I already believe he is!”, I told him. The prosecution was not prepared, organized or even thorough in their execution of the case. Unprepared witnesses, unclear strategy, and no mention of the key factors of the crime (racial profiling for one) defined the character of the prosecution’s case. You can’t win if the jury does not have a clear understanding of your theory of the crime.

And since I am talking about the dynamics of the law and the case, let me take a minute to define the difference between being guilty as a verdict of a court of law versus the actually committing of a crime. You see, in our system of jurisprudence, the evidence and the law are the only factors for consideration in order to prove the ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ of a defendant. The job of the prosecuting attorney is to arrange the evidence in such a way as to ‘reconstruct’ a narrative of the crime placing the defendant as the one who is centrally responsible for both the evidence and the crime. This is actually a huge responsibility since the only job of the defense is to offer a ‘reasonable doubt’ to the prosecution’s case. Defendant’s have no real burden of proof other than to discount what may take months or years for the prosecution to put together as the narrative, given the evidence.

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What this system does not give is a guarantee that the one ruled guilty is actually the one who committed the crime. This system of jurisprudence offers the ‘faith’ that if the evidentiary hearing is sufficient enough that a jury of ‘peers’ believes a particular theory of the crime, then justice is served. This system can only give assurance based upon a “preponderance of the evidence.” However, this system is likely to get it right as much as it likely to get it wrong. For one who masters the elements of trial law, jury selection, and storytelling can convince a court (within reason) of their theory of the crime and thus get someone acquitted who may have actually committed the crime (see OJ, Casey Anthony, and any number of Jim Crow ‘trials’, etc.).

Given my skewed understanding, I started reflecting on the results of the case and listening to the press conferences of both the prosecution and the defense on Saturday night. What I wrestled with deeply disturbed me. For one, why is it that the prosecution in Florida (or any state for that matter) is always so effective when the defendants are represented by public defenders or cheap legal representation, but not so when there is ‘good’ legal representation? Why is it that under ‘normal’ circumstances, the prosecution is often so confident in their theory of the crime, that they bully defendants into plea deals so that they never set foot into a court room? Why is it that a ‘typical’ prosecution often gets away with certain ‘tricks’ that are overlooked by inexperienced defense attorneys and trial weary judges only to the detriment of the defendant’s fair hearing before the law?

I think that ultimately, the Zimmerman/Martin affair has revealed the underlying problem with our system of ‘justice’. It is the same problem that was brought to light in the OJ Simpson case, the Casey Anthony case and many of the other high profile cases that result in a prosecution’s failure to prove the case. It is brought to light in any high profile, well-heeled defendant is brought before a court of law to be held accountable for some act. In those instances, the respective prosecutions are forced to bring their ‘A’ game, because so many people count on them to get it right. At best, they are mediocre; because, quite simply, their normal actions against a defendant often involve ‘tricks’ and other mechanisms to avoid an intense trial on the evidence and facts. Plea deals, zealous prosecution and other powers of the state so often overwhelm ‘ordinary’ defendants that there is seemingly little for them to be able to react to. ‘Ordinary’ defendants don’t have deep pockets to get the attorneys that check after prosecutorial misconduct. ‘Ordinary’ defendants cave under the bluff of evidence that prosecutors throw at defense teams. ‘Ordinary’ defendants don’t have an entire world rooting for (or against) their acquittal……

 

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Now, as you may have guessed (by my oversimplification of the legal system), I am not a lawyer or even a legal secretary.  What I know of the law comes from a careful reading of some textbooks on law (and a hell of a lot of ‘Law and Order’). I am a practical theologian. I speak to matters of faith and how our faith speaks to the matters of our life. In light of that disclaimer, I can say this: our current system of jurisprudence offers little in the way of the justice that God is looking for in the above passage from Isaiah. You see, justice is first and foremost a divine concept. The Bible is replete with examples of God’s cry and call for justice to be made known among the nations and the people. Justice, like love, is an aspect of God’s character. God is the balance on the scales and the mediator of the morality of the universe. The nature, occasion, and execution of justice is solely the ultimate purview of God.

Like all attempts at human imitation of the divine, the American justice system falls far short of the divine character. Perverse and distorted, the justice system is riddled with loopholes and undermining of the traditional rules that distort the divine position. Not unique to America, the truth is that humanity’s justice is not God’s justice. This passage from Isaiah forecasts the beginning of new vision for Israel. It is a vision where God, out of sheer frustration and disappointment, comes down to be justice for the nation. In this anger, God deals with the unjust to reestablish the plumb line for the nation and for the world.

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Just because justice is divine, doesn’t mean we cant’ do our be better. (Love is divine and we spend a lifetime trying to perfect it!) We can do better by our citizens, by our mothers and fathers, and by our God. As long as there are those who are prosecuted disproportionately, we can do better. As long as there are those who can ‘buy’ the right defense to find the holes in our legal system, we can do better. As long as people feel unsafe and unprotected by the systems that are meant to protect us, we can do better. God requires it…..lest God comes down and see about it for Godself!

My heart breaks for Sabrina Fulton and Tracy Martin as they have no closure and no opportunity to grieve fully in light of the continual questions that permeate this case. All of hearts should break at the injustices of our life together. We can and should do better by Biblical standards. For all those who mourn and suffer under our best attempts at justice, my vision is for their healing, and God’s justice to be done “on earth, as it is in heaven.”

 

 

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Lessons in the ‘tween time…

But Joseph said to them, Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones. In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21, NRSV)

The above passage comes from the saga of Joseph. Joseph’s tale encompasses the later half of the book of Genesis and is deeply disturbing for its fratricide, conspiracy and injustice. Joseph’s life is shaped by all of these horrible acts in his life. He is left for dead (by his own brothers), sold into slavery (by his brothers), taken into Egypt, accused of rape by his Master’s wife, locked in a prison and forgotten. The writers of Genesis overwhelmingly show the heartache and pain that occurs in the life of Joseph.

The truth of the matter is that Joseph’s story (although heightened and intense for all of the above factors), is not that far removed from the tumult of our own lives. There are times in our life that we feel assaulted by the circumstances and situations that bombard us. Sometimes they are family related and other times they are financial. Sometimes they are psychological and other times our health is under attack. However the trials of our life unfold, we like Joseph, feel totally beaten down and wounded as a result of the vicissitudes of life.

During the moments of trial and challenge, we as Christians do what I believe Joseph did…pray for meaning and purpose. The struggle for meaning is an existential truth, it is ever-present. It’s just most strongly felt during times of trial and great pain. We seek to know why we are facing these challenges, and what we can learn from these trial moments. That struggle often times leads us to peculiar places: “God is punishing us”, “the devil is busy,” or “God is enacting” become our mantras to find meaning.

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Despite the nature of these struggles, the above text gives us insight as to how we wrestle with meaning. For if it is true that God is in charge and has control of all aspects of life and the universe itself, then what happens in our life is not devoid of meaning. Nor are the trials we experience merely reflections of God’s wrath or the devil’s ingenuity. Those answers are ‘one dimensional’ and don’t convey a real struggle in faith to find God’s wisdom. (It isn’t that these explanations are ‘true’ or somehow ‘lack faith’. These explanations are just insufficient.)

Instead, struggling in faith seeks God in the midst of the struggles of life. Joseph states a most profound truism in the faith: “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” At the end of the day, our faith believes in the goodness of God and God’s plans for our life. Life itself is messy, confusing and complicated, but that doesn’t mean that God plans those evil acts and destructive machinations for your demise. Faith screams that “in the messiness of life, God is up to something!” It is through the messiness that goodness is still felt and sought by the faithful. Life’s circumstances can muddy the waters and complicate the issues, but God’s good plans are enacted in that messiness.

Praise God that the messiness is not eternal (no matter how continual the assaults of life occur)! In the moments of life’s interlude between the storms is the space we find for reflection and examination. Brief and fleeting though they may be, these ‘tween’ times are spaces and places for faith seeking understanding. When the storm calms down, the ‘tween time is the ‘midnight hour’ or the prayer closet moments that serve to promote clarity in the midst of storms or just before the challenge. It is in the ‘tween’ time after being elevated in Egypt, that Joseph arrives at some meaning for his struggles. Through reflecting on all of the experiences of Joseph’s life that he finally arrives at the true purpose of the trials and tribulations of life. All of it was designed for him to live into the purpose of his life. (in Joseph’s case, it was to be in the position of power to enact mercy to the nations during times of drought and famine.)

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I submit that only through the careful reflection, in ‘tween times, on the trials and circumstances of life can we arrive at the meaning (not the reason) for our difficulties. The reasons for our difficulties are never as clear to understand and filled with infinite possibilities of choice and change. However, the meaning for our pain is only understood in retrospect and often is singular in understanding. Through struggle, you recognize that the struggle of faith is not in vain and full of meaning. That meaning almost always serves to lead us toward our purposes.

God is busy enacting his good plans in our life. God’s busy shepherding us through the messiness of life to arrive at our destiny. Simply to begin the work we are charged with performing, we may have to rely on the vision of truth in God’s word and the prayers of the righteous just to make it through those trials. But when we do, we find purpose meets opportunity yielding the power of our destiny.

SELAH

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Newtownian Understanding (part 2)

Do not remember the former things,

or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing;

now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

and rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43:18-19, NRSV)

Do you still remember? Are you still outraged? Does it even matter anymore? In this age of rapid tweets, social media and waning attention spans, we are so quick to forget our hurts and pains. Our grief and moments of change last temporarily since our lives our fleeting and we so rapidly move from one state of angst to another.

Yet, we said that the tragedy in Newtown meant something different. We said that this tragedy should never happen again. We claimed a new orientation to the mental illness and our obsession with guns. Despite all of our proclamations and aspirations, the talk about gun control and mental illness has evaporated into the partisanship of old, and the gridlock that has marked our politics in the 21st century.

We have heard every manner of proposal  from the liberal Left to the conservative Right. The National Rifle Association proposed arming trained volunteers to be placed in public schools, while others have suggesting keeping a national database of the mentally ill. All of which seeks to do new things in and have a new mindset without changing our traditional systems of thinking and politics as usual.

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This text form the prophet Isaiah should give us some grounding as to what our course is moving forward. The prophet conveys God’s promise that God is prepared to do a new thing in the midst of our very being. In the face of depressing circumstances in exile and the loss of all that was normative, God questions the people of Israel, that he is “doing a new thing” and “can we perceive it?” In the very midst of their despair and concern, God points them to the opportunity in their midst. The interesting point to the passage is that those opportunities God is revealing our not simply moments of change…..but they are moments for God to show God’s self strong. God presents the opportunity and we are called to see and act with the assurance of God’s promise that something new can happen and is happening in our very midst.

In spite of the things we said after Newtown, we have not thought any differently about our violence, our treatment of the ill, or our children. We find reasons to hold two contradictory premises: maintain the safety and security an open society, and yet affirm the right to carry weapons by all individuals. If we say that God is speaking to use through these challenging moments, we must be prepared to entertain the notion that some tensions are too difficult to hold. Being a free society means that we have certain rights that guarantee life and liberty. But being a civilized society means that we are prepared ‘certain’ rights for the sake of the good of the society…….right?

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In any event, our national discourse is being conducted in such a way as to negate whatever learning opportunities we could have. Our work is yet to be completed, but it begins with us having street-corner conversations about everything from gun control to the treatment of our mentally ill. The stigmas of gun ownership need to be challenged just as much as the ostracizing of people who seek mental health advice. True, the average gun owner does not seek to harm any person, but may hunt or use it for the comfort gun ownership may bring. Yet, the prophet’s words of examination and insight ring true, “do you see what I am doing in your very midst?”

If we think that Newtown is a ‘game-changer’ in the life of this nation, then it ultimately means opening our eyes to the ways we need to change for the betterment of our nation. I affirm that God IS  up to something. Hopefully, if we CAN perceive it and glimpse it as a vision of truth for the upcoming year. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours…..

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Newtownian Understanding (Part 1)

Jesus wept. (John 11:35, KJV)

The simplest verse in all scripture, (and the one that is easily remembered during games of scriptural recall), is the above passage. In all of the Biblical witness, the profundity of scripture is so often found within its deep phrases and careful construction of the narrative. Understanding the nuances of the story and all of the subtleties of a passage of text, so often exposes the deepest meaning and truth for application. John 11 verse 35 captures all of that in two simple words……..Jesus……wept. It is the most provocative and deeply profound statement in the Bible.

John’s understanding of Jesus as the “Word made flesh” means that this Jesus is God realized and revealed in humanity. John’s Jesus is independent of the disciples and ready to engage all of the tasks of human existence because of the confidence of the relationship he has with “his Father.” The relationship is so connected and so intertwined that we understand John’s Jesus as fully God in the moment. So what Jesus does, so God does as well. When Jesus acts, God is at work. Jesus speaks, God is speaking. They are “one.”

So then, the moment when Jesus comes to the tomb of his deceased friend Lazarus, is an eye-opening moment in the life of Jesus and all of us. For in this moment, despite all of the power Jesus possesses to rectify the situation……..Jesus cries. God cries. Its earth shattering and provocative. It challenges all notions of divinity but yet it is witnessed to right there in the text. The fullness of divinity expressed the deepest and fullest moment of humanity…….grief.

Weeping

The events of this past Friday are so disturbing and numbing that it really defies words to attempt to explain. I, like many others around the world, was shell-shocked and stricken by the horror and evil visited on elementary school teachers and students. Much of my crying came from watching my own children play, oblivious to what was taken place in the world and how the parents of those twenty children could no longer do so. It hurt to see the pain in Connecticut while seeing the joy and innocence in the eyes of my children, knowing that the world we live in will one day jade those eyes and cause them to produce many tears.

These situations have become all too common in our country and frankly, a form of this type of violence occurs in neighborhoods and cities across this country everyday. Mothers and fathers are nearly constantly weeping because of the loss of a child to gun violence and assault. News images and reporters cover a fraction of the violence that visits many neighborhoods and communities. In America, we have sadly learned to cope with mental illness, gun violence and the tragedies of mass public killings. By the way, if we have found a way to cope with the killing of our children at the mall, in movie theaters and at schools, we have developed our own level of mental illness in society.

Each time this horror visits us (be it in Tuscon, Aurora, or Newtown), we as a nation quickly move from sadness to debate about fault, illness, or theological/philosophical distraction to satiate our desire to understand or make sense of these situations. People say things like “God needed another flower” or “its all part of God’s plan”. (In fact, if you read the John passage closely, you will discover that Jesus makes his own theological assertion about the death of his friend). In my experience, these assertions and claims, do little to provide the ‘help’ and understanding that people think they do. In some cases, it causes harm and pain. It is not constructive to try and comfort without first wrestling with your disturbance. That means taking time for self-reflection and processing. Some might argue that theological assertions and policy debates are ways to grieve and process our emotions in periods like this. This might be true, however, while there is no ‘right’ way to grieve, there are constructive ways to grieve. Constructive grief means dealing with the hurt your have experienced in ways that continually allow you explore meaning and feeling about a situation. This is very difficult and shouldn’t be done alone. Sadly, many do not know or are unwilling to go through the hurt to Process their emotional health. Rarely do we take the time to process our own emotions in light of these situations. As a result, we learn little from these horrific moments and become broken people ignoring the cracks and fissures of our neighbors and friends, because we don’t want to expose our own brokenness.

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In the days and weeks ahead, my vision of truth is that we take time to grieve constructively, together. We seek to understand ourselves in the light of this confusion. We weep. We write. We pray. We do the things as families, communities, neighborhoods that restore wholeness in our lives together. Constructive grieving is done privately and publicly and experienced individually and collectively, so that no one is simply alone and no one is delusional about their hurts and pains. We live together and grow whole……..together.

There is an interesting conclusion to the pericope of Jesus weeping. Jesus weeps and then orders the stone be removed and does something. After he weeps, he takes action. After crying, he addresses the situation. Quite simply, there is a time to cry and then there is a time for action……. (Part II will turn out attention to that action)

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