Words are important, but they have to have at least a vague relationship to reality; which is to say, the words and the actions have to occupy the same conceptual space.
What people want to know is: Do you actually live this stuff, or do you just talk about it? This Jesus you're always bringing up--do you just believe stuff about him, or do you actually try to live like he asked?
By Derek Penwell
I woke up this morning, and when I turned over and looked at the alarm clock, I knew the night’s sleep would be stolen from me. My mind raced like an undernourished Chihuahua on crack.
I staggered out of bed, and here I sit at the computer.
Life is suffering—at least that’s what the Buddha said is the first noble truth. In other words, if you don’t know anything else, the one thing you know (even if you don’t know it) is that at the heart of the human experience something is goofed up.
My students often get hung up on the word suffering, because to say that life is suffering strikes them as too morose. “I can see the sunrise. I sing songs. I love. Life isn’t all, or even primarily, suffering.”
But by suffering the Buddha didn’t just mean the kind of agony you experience when you hit your finger really hard with a hammer (which I did one summer when I was framing houses during seminary, and holy crap!) or when you find out that your blind date only knows how to talk about conspiracy theories concerning one wold governments run by intelligent cyborgs or the Illuminati … or both.
Dukkha, the Pali word for suffering, means more than just pain; it means stress, or disturbance, or dislocation, or the nagging feeling—often beneath the threshold of awareness—that something isn’t right.
Now, there’s a great deal involved in describing the causes of dukkha that I won’t go into. What I’m interested in at the moment is what we do about it.
The Buddha said that the way we deal with dukkha is most often by avoiding thinking about it. We distract ourselves.
I went to the abbey at Gethsemani some years back. The guest master at the time, Father Damian (before he became abbot) said, “We can give you a gift here that you cannot get almost anywhere else in the world—silence. Enjoy it. For it is from the silence that God speaks. Embrace the silence. Listen for God.”
Like the Buddha, Father Damian said that the reason silence is so rare is that people want to hide from the silence, to distract themselves. That’s why, he continued, the first thing people do when they get into their cars is turn on the radio. It’s why people flip on the television as soon as they walk in the house. They don’t want the silence to find them.
Dukkha confronts us in the silence, reminding us that everything is not as it should be. We grasp foolishly for that which we cannot possess.
We treat as permanent that which is fleeting—and when it disappears or dies, we suffer.
We deceive ourselves about who we are, about what is valuable, about the nature of the world, and even about the causes and the extent of our travail—and when the silence speaks the truth to us, the suffering surfaces.
Or maybe, as Father Damian suggested, it is God who speaks truth to us in the silence.
If I’m honest, the silence that most frightens me is the one that descends in the night. I wake up, and the silence screams. In the light of day, I have—as, I suspect, do we all—the well-worn methods of distracting myself from having to sit in the presence of the silence.
But at night the silence steals into my room. The habits I’ve cultivated for avoiding silence desert me when the house is dark and everyone lies sleeping, leaving me in the hungry presence of truth. I say “hungry,” because I feel devoured by the truth, as though my life and the defenses of illusion I’ve built seem to vanish in painful bites.
I’m not talking about the terrors of the night, where our senses are heightened and we’re sure that we heard someone trying to move silently through the house, or convinced that the baby has stopped breathing, or worried because we haven’t’ heard the sump pump turn on in quite a while and there’s a heavy storm going on just outside the window …
No. I mean the silence that reveals me to myself:
- Why don’t you take better care … of yourself, of your wife, of your children, of your friends, of your car, of the house? (The list can be endless.)
- Why aren’t you more diligent about living what you say you believe?
- When do you think everyone will finally see what a fraud you are … as a writer, as a professor, as a minister, as a human being? (Again, the list can get rather long.)
- Why are you so afraid of the silence?
But here’s the thing: If God is to be found in the silence, then no matter how uncomfortable, that’s where I need to be. Avoiding the truth doesn’t make it go away; it just makes it that much more unlikely that I’ll recognize it when it confronts me.
There’s no justice, no peace without truth. And if I care anything about the former, I’m going to have to embrace the latter—which means that somewhere along the line, I’m going to have to learn to love the silence.
But those who follow Jesus have been shown a different kind of world, one where the people we feel responsible for aren’t just those we care about, but those who don’t have the resources to care for themselves, where we view our resources not as things we must protect against the hordes of 'others,' but as things we share with strangers, whom we call family.
According to the reign of God Jesus announces, there’s a world out there that, like it or not, we’re partially responsible for helping to shape. The question is: What do we want it to look like?
In raising Jesus from the dead, God made a counter claim to Caesar, reversing the death Caesar dealt.
Easter means that God has declared the inauguration of a new kingdom—a kingdom that prompts us to ask: 'What kind of world would we inhabit if God sat on Caesar’s throne?'
How would our policies on poverty or healthcare look different if God occupied the Oval Office?
What would our teachers’ pensions look like if God lived in the governor’s mansion? What would Sacramento look like if God were in Stephon Clark's backyard that night?
Jesus leads a parade with the offer of a new kind of kingdom—a kingdom where victory is won not with war-horses and the bow, but with a donkey and some palm branches. A new kingdom, built on justice and equity for the downtrodden. A kingdom where people don’t have to live in fear that the state will tear them from their families because they don’t have the right documents, or that they may be struck down in their own backyards by officers of the state while holding nothing more threatening than a cell phone, or that their children must lie awake every night in fear that going to school may be the last thing they ever do.
We beheld his glory, a glory that required us to redefine just what glory is.
It’s easy to tire of the world as it is. The cruelty, the ignorance, the selfishness. We see it reflected in the eyes of those who’re told repeatedly that their lives are a burden society shouldn’t have to bear. We see it in the posture of those who can’t shrink far enough into a corner not to draw the attention of the bullies and the sharks. We see it in the weathered faces of those convinced the only safe place to find shelter on cold nights is on the steps just outside those doors.
Hard to watch for most people. And yet when Jesus talks about being glorified, he’s talking about heading into the midst of the tired, poor, huddled masses—to look straight into the eyes of the death that binds so many to hopelessness.
Are you sure Jesus meant the whole world?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure he did. John 3:16 and stuff.
And that’s where I think the real problem lies. I like the idea of Jesus going the extra mile to snatch me from the drink. But, I mean, come on, there are a lot of other people out there still who love the wrong people, who have the wrong color skin, who live in the wrong part of town, who didn’t have the good sense to be born to citizens of this country, who deal with mental and emotional demons most of us can’t imagine even in our worst nightmares—and too many folks would just as soon not have to make room for them.
Jesus’ love, I thought for many years was my ticket to the party. The fact that I didn’t deserve that ticket was the practical limit of my understanding of divine love. Other people were just going to have to claim their own ticket. I’d help as much as I could. But when it came down to it, you have your salvation, and I have mine.
But if you happen to be one of the people kicked to the curb by the folks in charge, Jesus’ anger down at the Temple may just be what love sounds like.
By Derek Penwell
Last week, I participated in a rally against gun violence, organized by local teachers. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, to hear teachers talk about the terror their students face as they imagine themselves staring down the barrel of a gun was gut wrenching. The cold rain seemed like the perfect weather to speak about the unspeakable.
They asked me to open with prayer. This is what I said:
God of all children, please be there in the midst of this pain. In the midst of the tears, and adrenaline, and stark horror . . . please be there. And more than that, help us to find you there . . . with tears on your cheeks and the blood of your children still on your face. We need to know that you’re here with us, in the thick of it . . . where the vomit and the gore ruin our khakis, and the smell settles into our pores, threatening to become a permanent part of the way the world smells to us.
Please be there, O God. For those students who have risen up against the senseless violence their legislators should have shielded them from. Give them strength and courage to insist on the peace you desire for all your children.
For those parents and friends who feel abandoned by you, please be there in ways that offer if not comfort, then at least the strength to make it through the next few minutes until the next wave hits. Give them also the strength and courage to face the fear and uncertainty, to stand between their children and the darkness that seeks them out.
For the teachers who also feel afraid, and sad, and too often powerless, bear them up to be able to confront the horror that lies in front of them, and give them the resources to be able to transform the memories of evil into stamina and resolve for the fight against gun violence.
And for us. Please be there for the rest of us who struggle to figure out how we’ve come to a point where children must fear armed strangers in the womb of our educational system. Help us to find the words to put to our rage and despair, to find the words to comfort those who need be comforted, to find the words to speak justice and peace to a world bent on filling graves with the bodies of children, to find the words necessary not to meet this violence with more violence.
And to the one who surely grieves most of all, have mercy on us and hear our prayer.
Our cross to bear is a cross—a concession that our willingness to speak up on behalf of those who’ve been oppressed, a concession that our willingness to fight for justice for the powerless for whom justice is always a nice word used by the people in charge to give an excuse for why they’re the only ones fit to be in charge, a concession that our willingness to live like Jesus is a potentially deadly one.
Our cross to bear, like Jesus before us, isn’t just a question of suffering our own private indignities; it’s a question of who we’re willing to suffer indignities for.
The truth of the matter is, what follows our decision to follow Jesus is often much less glorious than we might have thought beforehand. In fact, the very first thing that may be required of us is to stand toe-to-toe against the forces of injustice and evil in the world, out in the wilderness, facing the wild beasts—no celebration, just normal, unremarkable acts that, if we’re faithful, have a chance to change the world.
Indeed, immediately after his time in the wilderness, when Jesus says that 'the kingdom of God has come near,' perhaps what he’s talking about isn’t a nearness that avoids the wild beasts in the wilderness, but a nearness that comes from being compelled to confront them there, precisely because it’s hostile territory—where the powers and principalities are strongest and the victims of those powers need us most.
Scary times right now. An uncertain future faces all of us as social, legal, and political norms are being upended daily.
And I come to church and think, 'It is good for us to be here'—especially when here feels at least marginally safer than out there. We could just stay here on the mountaintop, pitch a few tents, and ride out the storm while the rest of the world tears itself apart.
But the problem is, by the time we get the tents put up, Jesus has already headed back down the mountain into the chaotic mess that awaits him below. So, it's no longer a good thing for us to be good in here—because Jesus is headed out there.
Perhaps, we should be less concerned with doing what everyone else thinks churches ought to do, and worry more about doing what Jesus calls us to do—to make a place in the world for those who have no place.
Can you imagine that world—a world where everyone has a seat at the table, where no one is outside the bounds of community, where the divisions that keep us cut off from one another have been healed?
Not all acts are created equal. Some acts can start a revolution.
I think it goes without saying that there are people who show up in church who don't have the slightest idea why they're even there . . . except that they need to hear about a God who holds the hand of the anxious, who bears up those too weak to stand, who loves those who think themselves unlovable, who forgives the unforgivable. So yes, we need to comfort and console the frightened and grieving. We need a God of grace.
But there are also people who need to hear about a God who is furious with a world in which immigrant families are torn apart, a God whose anger flares when terrified refugees are turned away, a God whose indignation burns hot against those who would mistreat women and minorities, a God who’s unafraid of the rulers of this world who abuse the poor, who lead cheers of hatred against Muslims and the undocumented.
If you happen to be one of the people kicked to the curb by the folks in charge, God's outrage may just be what grace sounds like.
The world can’t afford for us to wait for a lightning strike or dancing unicorns before we take seriously that God might be talking to us in the whisper of an itinerant peasant who just happens to be walking past when we least expect it.
There are folks who’ve lived too long with the belief that they don’t amount to anything because of what color they are, or where they were born, or whom they love, or because of what kind of shape their bodies or brains are in, or because their bank account doesn’t sport the requisite robust balance.
There are a lot of people out there who need to know the love of God that tells them they were made for more than defeat and despair, that tells them their suffering and oppression is a failure of the system and not their destiny, that offers to them God’s vision of a new world where they are what matters and that all the things that currently define their misery are not.
Clare Rutz - Youth Minister/Outreach Coordinator
My entire professional life has been built on failures. When I first got going I thought I was going to fix our country’s educational system. Then I taught public school in New York City for a quick second and realized only God himself could take on that task. Then, as many twenty-somethings do, I figured I would take a stab at global poverty. I vetted, visited, and temporarily helped small non-profits across Asia, but I was only as good as my commitment and, at 22, I still wanted to be important. So I moved to D.C. because that’s where important people move. In no time at all I figured out that theoretical work in a cubicle wasn’t really my cup of tea either.
The Peace Corps was my answer and in many ways it still is. My two and a half years in Senegal turned me upside down and inside out. And it was an uncomfortable process.
First, I learned that I will never be a capable farmer no matter how much Wendell Berry I read. Then, I learned that I am no one’s savior. I learned that the good work I always wanted to do is done through trust and understanding and, therefore, relationship. I learned there are certain people in this world who are Christ-like, but they are rarely noticed. And as much as I want to be that kind of person, I may not have it in me, but I can find them, be near them and notice, support and love them.
So when asked, What good can we do? I look to my failures to point me in the right direction.
Four years ago, when there was an unexpected sum of money from the Woodbourne House as it transitioned to affordable senior housing, the honorable David Sprawls piped up and said that we should probably practice what we preach. The amount that was not budgeted for was a total of $33,000 and after consideration and conversation we all decided to put it right back into our community. First, we gave $15,000 to New Roots to help them grow into the organization they are now. In the years that followed, they have received multiple awards and significant funding. I for one believe our initial support to what was then a small and new organization was truly catalytic. Or we just have really good timing.
We then met with Mission Behind Bars, a non-profit that is held dear by many in this congregation, and worked with them as they also looked to grow. We gave them a matching gift of $10,000 over two years to help incentivize new congregations and donors to also give. We just received an email last week saying that their second year of raising these matching funds and growing their donor base has been wonderfully successful and they are hopeful for their future.
We also started the Charlie Thompson Library with media written by, for, and about the LGBTQ community just downstairs thanks to Travis Myles’ leadership.
So much good has come from this outreach fund it would be terrible to see it dry up and never heard from again. So the outreach committee met and ate pizza and discussed how to continue all this good work. And after that very long introduction, I want to tell you what we came up with.
This month, we’re unveiling Louisville’s first public giving circle. What’s a giving circle you ask? It’s a pooled fund that individuals can give to to make their small donation have a big impact. This giving circle in particular will be distributed monthly to small, local organizations that focus on human dignity and serve people on a grassroots level.
To get the ball rolling, the outreach fund is proposing to give $500 every month in matching donations at a 1:2 ratio. So I give $10, it turns into $15. Then 99 other people give $10 and the small organization has a $1500 check that makes a huge difference to their programming and there are 100 people who know more about their work. Even better. I can sign up to be a monthly donor and make a difference across the city all year round. Think about it as another Netflix account, but instead of movies you’re subscribing to social justice and human dignity.
We are living in a time where the underserved are even more vulnerable, but throughout policy change and political shifts, there are those who continue to take care. This task is often thankless, burdensome, and will just barely pay the bills and yet there are defenders of human dignity working at this grassroots level throughout our city. It is imperative, especially as state and federal funding becomes limited, to support our social workers, educators, and counselors so they may simply continue their work.
But hard times affect us all. Many of us are living paycheck to paycheck and followed around by looming student loans or medical bills. It’s hard to part with anything extra, and the question lingers, do they really need it more than me?
The 12 vetted organizations that will receive these funds in 2018 are:
- Coalition for the Homeless
- Survivors of Torture Recovery Center
- Family Scholar House
- Louisville Youth Group
- Louisville Visual Art
- Backside Learning Center
- Mattingly Edge
- Louisville Grows
- Peace Ed
- Louisville Girls Leadership
- Hildegard House
- Food Literacy Project
These organizations serve people where they are and work on the ground. They don’t have ginormous budgets, and yes, they need my $10 more than I do.
It’s also an amazing way for Douglass Boulevard Christian Church to keep giving even after our outreach fund has been spent. In the future, we can look for grants to provide the matching funds as a sustainable option, and it’s another opportunity to extend our stewardship and community beyond these doors.
The giving circle, dubbed Cairn, is an opportunity to turn a $5 donation into something far greater. Your donation stands for action steps and starting local and taking care of our neighbors in a very real way. It stands for collaborative effort and community support. It’s telling those who don’t often hear it that we are grateful they share our home, both the served and those who are serving.
I hope you will join us.
But come on, Eli's old and blind. Why blame him? It's his sons who're the scoundrels, right? Why's God mad at him?
Because, as the chief priest, he's the one who's supposed to be looking out for the interests of God's people, especially those who come humbly seeking God. Instead those people are bullied and taken advantage of by the very people whose power Eli is responsible for overseeing.
That is to say, if you stand by and say nothing when the folks on top fleece the folks on the bottom, you've taken sides with Eli against God. I don't know how else to put it.
If you don’t stand up when those in power belittle and dehumanize the vulnerable, you’ve turned your back on the very people God cares most about.
By Derek Penwell
When I get up on Sunday morning to deliver a sermon, everyone (I hope) understands that I’m an imperfect messenger. Preachers understand that somehow we have to preach better than we are. In that sense, then, the pulpit acts as a promontory from which a flawed emissary stands and points toward a destination on the horizon.
The tension in preaching comes from the realization that the preacher has rarely ever arrived at the destination toward which she points, but that she must continue to point nevertheless. The vocation of preaching, therefore, is a constant battle between conviction and humility. I’m pretty sure I know where we need to go, but there’s always the possibility that I may be wrong. To the extent that preachers fail to maintain that healthy tension, problems arise. If you’re too confident, you’ll never be open to course correction. If you’re too humble, you’ll never point in any particular direction consistently enough to give people a sense of where to go.
This tension is especially important when it comes to preaching privilege from the pulpit. I struggle with whether I can ever be an effective advocate for justice, all the while knowing that somehow I’m not doing what I’ve been called to do if I don’t try.
Here’s the problem I face each time I have to deal with issues of justice: I’m a straight, cis-gender, middle class white guy. From an American cultural perspective, I won the genetic lottery . . . just by being born. I am uncomfortably aware of my deficiencies when it comes to the prospect of preaching about the inequities of our social systems with authenticity. That is to say, preaching about the need to feed the hungry, protect the widow and the orphan, welcome the foreigner, embrace the differences of race and ethnicity is always something I do from the comfortable perch of my privilege, knowing that if everything continues to go the way it almost always has, I will invariably enjoy a certain amount of insulation from the the very situations on behalf of which I’m called upon to advocate.
So, why should anyone listen to anything I have to say on the issue of injustice—since, by and large, people very much like me are the ones who helped create and who continue to help sustain the systems that produced that injustice? To put it more simply, regardless of the message, I must continually come to terms with the fact that I am an imperfect messenger on issues of justice.
On the other hand, I’m also aware that if people like me don’t speak up about privilege, don’t question the power arrangements that often have injustice—as, if not a central organizing principle, then an uncanny amount of correlation—it will be almost impossible to undo those power arrangements.
Then again, even saying that I think I’m a part of the solution of deconstructing these systems of power risks being patronizing: “Y’all can’t do this without me.” The lack of humility about which I spoke a moment ago.
But if I never dare to speak the truth about my privilege and about the unjust systems that oppress others (but which implicitly benefit me) because doing so seems hypocritical, I become a silent accomplice. I become an enabler of such a system. See above: The lack of confidence.
Here’s where a really smart preacher might draw things together in a way that successfully navigates the inherent pitfalls of speaking from the pulpit about privilege. But I’m not that smart. I don’t have an algorithm that helps me to weigh all the factors, sustain the tension, and unfailingly make the right choices. I have only my good intentions, which probably aren’t enough. But most of the time, they’re all I’ve got.
And so I wrestle. I try to do the right thing, knowing that I may never know if I’m doing it correctly. My real hope lies in the belief that my intense desire to negotiate the problems of privilege from the pulpit is itself a faltering step in the right direction. But there’s always the possibility that I may be wrong.
The way our culture views it, victory means overcoming the odds and coming out on top, where the lights shine and glory fills the air. But Jesus transforms victory; he reshapes triumph. He goes up against the kingdoms of this world; but instead of battling on the king’s violent terms, Jesus prevails by refusing to become the kind of ruler his followers misguidedly want him to be—one who needs the spotlight, who craves glory, one who needs to tell the world how smart and successful he is—and he holds out to become the king we all need—the one who’s willing to die for a peace and justice that can never be won through conventional means—soaked to the elbows as it is in the blood of children and the humiliation of the powerless.