Yesterday afternoon my colleague in ministry called to talk about something our church will be doing tomorrow when we gather for worship. We’ll be walking and praying in our neighborhood, joining other churches across the city in doing the same.
We will walk as a cry for justice, a cry for peace, a visible call for others to add their voices to these cries, to link hearts in solidarity.
If the church is God’s people, and if God identifies with the oppressed—reaches out to them in love, longs to love the downtrodden through God’s people—then it is the church’s responsibility to identify with the oppressed, to call for justice. If we do not, we are not God’s people.
So, we are walking and praying tomorrow as a symbol of our resolve to take a stand, to be responsive to God’s heart for everyone. The walk itself is no great feat, but if it serves as a symbol for something greater…then that will be world-changing.
To be sure, the recent events in the United States in Ferguson and New York have prompted this simple peace-walk but what should trouble us more is that these events are the same old story: “You’re different”—and “difference is bad.” What should trouble us is that racial discrimination (and all manner of injustice) happens every day all over the world, not just in the United States—and we do nothing or little more than nothing in response to it. Yes, this should trouble us.
Someone looks and acts differently, so we use coercion to call them to conform—and the result is deadly.
Even if we engage in arguments about who is “right” and who is “wrong” in these tragic scenarios, those are the factors at play: difference and coercion. And something dies in our heart and soul when things like this happen. We know something is not right. It doesn’t sit well with us. It disturbs us—and rightly so. The anger should tell us something. We were not made for anger. Even so-called “righteous anger” should be tempered with humility and gentleness—we’re only human, after all. Invitation is the most powerful kind of confrontation.
Since it is the Christmas season, I hasten to add that this lies at the core of the Christmas message. In the Christmas story we see God’s humble self. We see a confrontation with humanity in which God (the Almighty Most High) became the weak and vulnerable, gentle. God sent his Son to make peace—and peace was offered not loudly and in anger, but softly, quietly. That was a risky, bold move for God to make. Vulnerability, gentleness, solidarity with the powerless…the most powerless.
Who threatens Herod, the tyrant? A displaced Jewish baby, so wondrous.
God the peacemaker is shocking, truly.
Each Sunday in Advent has a distinct theme. Last Sunday, it was Hope. This Sunday, it is Peace. Week three is Joy and week four is Love.
I am thinking a lot about the sequence to those themes just now. We cry out in hope, longing for a better world—longing, waiting, expecting, praying and working for the day when all will be well, and all will be well, and all will be well.
That is our deepest heart-cry. It is a cry for peace.
When the hope for peace is fulfilled, we will have joy and live in love.
What more do we need? Nothing. There is nothing lacking in this. That is what makes this season so wondrous.
I have the privilege of serving as a children’s ministry coordinator at our church and I am grateful for the opportunity to help the children wonder deeply about all this. So, they will be invited to walk and pray right with the adults.
In fact, I think of children in the midst of this prayer walk like the secret ingredient in an award-winning recipe. If you leave them out, you lose the essence of what makes it so special.
Whether we realize it or not, anyone who joins the peace-walk tomorrow is doing it for the children. We do not really think that on Sunday we will walk and on Monday everything will be hunky-dory (that’s Minnesotan for “just fine”). No, what we want is real, lasting change. We hope that the world 50 years from now will be better—truly better, safer, more loving. We want to see the young grow up to be concerned for others, to rise to the aid of the poor and disenfranchised.
That is change. It is slow and will take a long time to nurture. It is a work the older generation can begin now but it must be embraced by the younger generation or nothing will really change.
Here is another reason I am glad the children are invited to join us on our prayer walk tomorrow: Racism is learned. It is handed down from the old to the young.
Here is a common scenario of how this happens: a wound was inflicted and a grudge is nursed. Just when the wound is on the brink of healing, it gets re-injured or we choose to open it up on our own again. Sometimes we grow so accustomed to being hurt that we hardly know what to do with ourselves without hurt. Hurt begins to define us. We label ourselves as “the wounded ones,” no matter what “side” we are on.
Regardless, we begin to form an identity that reinforces the notion of “us vs. them.”
“Those people…,” I heard someone say the other day. Yes, they used those very words: those people.
It is natural to “protect” our children, to seek to give them a space where they can grow and be free and safe. But it will be better to form in children an appreciation and love for people who are different than to cloister them in pockets of homogeneity.
Love and respect are better teachers than suspicion and fear. Hurt does not need to define us anymore. Courage can.
This is heart work, at its core. Though laws may be passed and enforced now, if the work of peace does not take root in the hearts of children, no just society will flourish.
Legislation, however well-intended, is bound to fail in time. As the next generation matures and takes leadership, if they have no grasp of what it means to live peacefully with others (no experience of that), then interpretation and enforcement of once-good laws will be no more useful than learning to speak Homer’s classical Greek. People read it, but no one speaks it.
If, on the other hand, children learn to cherish peace in their hearts, their mouths will learn to speak it and their actions will embody it.
That is our task. It is akin to infection or art. You get caught up in it, without being “told” to do so. Beautify hearts and minds (especially the young—while they are not set in their ways yet) with a vision of dignity and respect for every living soul…
…young or old
…rich or poor
…male or female
…no matter the color of their skin
or the language of their tongue
or the condition of their body
or the afflictions of their mind (we all have them!).
Beautify and wonder. That is our task.
Tomorrow, before going out to walk, we will gather the children up front and take a good, close look at the Jesus-story that is there (via some small wooden figures). It looks like a nativity scene, but the figures also tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Never mind, the nativity itself is chock-full of the truths we need to consider before going on our walk. It’s all there. It is a vision of dignity and respect for every living soul…
…the young (Mary) and the old (the shepherd)
…the rich (the 3 kings) and the poor (the shepherd)
…male (Joseph) and female (Mary)
…people of all colors (the 3 kings, Mary, Joseph)
…Jew and Gentile, all together.
“I wonder where you are in this story?” I’ll ask. “I wonder where others are?”
We’re all in it.
Beautify and wonder. That is our task.
I invite you to join in on it. Amen.