Signs of Hope in Lent: The Power of Telling Our Story, Part 3

I’ll conclude with these reflections from an interview with Wendell Berry after Donald Trump was elected. Berry said,

“Happiness is a great mental faculty. It happens. One of the best things I know about happiness is that some days I’m happy. I’m happy! I didn’t try to be happy. I don’t have anything in particular to be happy about or happier than I was yesterday. But I’m happy…Well, what a great thing that is! How it undermines—suppose you’re just freely happy for five minutes—that just destroys everybody who’s tried to sell you something to make you happy. How subversive! It’s possible. Let me tell you young people, it’s possible sometimes to go for a whole day and be happy and not buy a thing! We have all these people telling us that what we’ve got is not any good: our house, our wife, our husband, our car; whatever it is, is not as good as a person of our stature and standing ought to have. And we ought to be very unhappy because we don’t have it…” (approx. 44-47 min.)

Then he goes on to describe his experience of civil disobedience at the governor’s office:

“I want you to understand. The score between the conservationists and the coal industry is 100 to nothing. We’ve been totally defeated. We haven’t got a chance. But that was one of the best weekends I ever spent in my life. We had the happiest time. And people sent us food and bedding and some people even came in and gave us a massage. So I think that’s the way you get on. You’re up against it, you’re hard up against it, you do what you can. And you have a good time. You love your allies, the people you’re doing it with. There was a great love in that governor’s office.” (approx. 52-54 min.)

In closing, please follow along with the handout called “A Litany of Resistance.” May this “work of the people” remind us of our hope-filled story. Especially in this season of Lent and the current presidency, I pray that God will fling us out into the harvest as laborers because the fields are ripe!

Signs of Hope in Lent: The Power of Telling Our Story, Part 2

I remember the day Pete (one of the eldest gang leaders, not his real name) sat on top of me, pinned my arms with his knees, the crotch of his nylon basketball shorts within inches of my face. He shouted out to the other gang members loitering in the living room, “Should I rip one?!?,” meaning let gas fly in my face. Everyone immediately burst out laughing. Pete was a huge man, not cuddly or cute, but a generally mean person who probably weighed over 300 lbs at about 6 feet 5 inches tall. He had a sick sense of humor. We understood him sort of like a “shot caller” for us young gang recruits. We all looked up to him and, between each other, vied for his approval. But when I found myself beneath him, laying powerless on the floor, I just wanted to go back to my privileged cocoon in White suburbia.

I told myself to look serious and unfazed coming into his apartment that day, “Don’t say anything stupid. Just be quiet. Look people in the eye and laugh at what Pete says.” But all this surface-level self-talk was a complete facade. I almost immediately felt panic begin to rise in me. On entering his sparse apartment, Pete first wanted us to see his thick wad of $100s bills, probably from casino tips and drugs he sold. He then brandished a semi-automatic assault rifle. In spite of my best attempts to project a fearless persona, I probably could have jumped out of my shoes if anyone poked me. I could feel the stress chemicals coming out of my skin like little air bubbles exhaling the message to others: here’s a weak person to toss around and entertain yourself with.

I now know this is what fear looks like. It’s like a Big Man passing gas in my face. It’s me struggling to get up, but having no strength compared to this giant on top of me. It’s like having guys who I call friends revel and laugh at my weakness and humiliation.

Fear seems to have two biologically imbedded responses: fight or flight. Despite my attempts to look tough, I mostly tried to retreat inside, to not let the emotions show. Instead, I silently imagined my growing anger giving me super powers to fight like Jet Lee or the meanest version of Tony Montana. But, when it came to the gang, I never managed to challenge my bullies. I was happy that my old friends outside of the gang now saw me as powerful just because I hung out with them, so I told myself maybe it would get better over time if I laid low and held on. Of course it didn’t get any better, but much, much worse.

The truth is, I love Pete. He is a wounded man. I can feel that today more than ever. He did things to me and other victims that were just messed up. Even now my anger can well up. But I also see him as he is, the waywardness and all. I look into his life and somehow find a humble man. Whether it is truly Pete or not, I don’t know for sure. And yet I want my victims to see me that way too, to show me the same mercy. In fact, isn’t this reversal how the rulers are brought down low? Isn’t this hand of grace how the rich get sent away empty? Isn’t this complete release of vengeance how the hungry are fed?

Ironically, my secret fault was that I needed a friend. I was too afraid to admit that to myself, much less to Pete and a half dozen other gangster youth. Perhaps I wouldn’t have known what to do if I had actually found someone I could lean on. But it strikes me as a worthy secret to tell everyone now, something I would have never thought of back then.     

Each person’s story has the power to offer liberation for someone else: Mary’s song, Jesus’ lament, Burley’s vision of community, even my own retelling of life beyond my bullies. These stories speak about God’s strong arm reaching into the world and turning things upside down. By telling the public what happened—in real honesty with hope—the Spirit gently aims us all back to God, the only One whose “judgments…are true and righteous altogether.” Yes, we know that some may try to discredit our hope, but others will finally imagine it for themselves: if it can happen for her, it can happen for me. Those who resist the call to bear witness and repent very often have no idea who will save them. They feel a deep alienation from the King whose ear is curved to answer the cries of the poor, the afflicted, the insignificant, the excluded and left out.    

What secret faults do you want cleansed? What stories do you need to tell? What can make a person truly happy even if the world is falling apart?


Signs of Hope in Lent: The Power of Telling Our Story, Part 1


Luke 13:34-35

Psalm 19:7-14


“We Fall Down”
By Donnie McClurkin

“This is what it means to be penitent: to face ourselves honestly and with hope. Truth — the kind of truth that sets us free — is hopeful honesty. It makes change possible. There is, of course, a way of being honest that is less than truthful, an honesty that is lacking in hope.”

Tim Keel

By a lot of accounts, this is an embarrassing time to be associated with Jesus. Many of our worst ideas and fears about God are pegged on Jesus. A quick glance through church history seems to reveal that most denominations have accepted, in one variation or another, that Jesus will someday come back to account for all the wayward things people have said and done. For some, this teaching may evoke the image of an exacting, unforgiving, even bloodthirsty Judge who desires vengeance. Not surprisingly, it’s easy for me to reject this kind of “savior” who is so unlike Jesus!

But I feel doubly troubled by the absence of justice in a world where death-dealing powers are ostensibly in charge. I feel frustrated with stock phrases like, “God is love” or “Be the change you want to see.” Although this language is intended to focus on inclusivity and personal agency, it often results in the preacher taking a nap. Spirituality of this kind seems to unwittingly pacify the vulnerable and grieving with promises of unity based on self-sacrifice and unreality. Rather than inviting us to a radical call of nonviolent liberation and holy disruption, this form of inclusivity seems focused on avoiding conflicts and, strikingly, still leaves the work of righting wrongs in human hands. Indeed, no one from the Christian left seems to know how God himself will accomplish justice or end evil in the human story. Yet Mary, our matron, saw this narrative burst wide open as she experienced justice from God’s own powerful hand:

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

    and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53).

She indeed rejoiced because of this “good news.” I also joyfully welcome a strong God who makes good on his promises. Of course, I’d be lying to myself (and you my friends) if I just left it like that, as if faith in those promises were as simple as believing certain things. So let me complicate my longing for God’s powerful intervention by admitting to some real doubt—not theoretical doubt—but doubt that began in my own weaknesses, in particular times and places.

In the season of Lent we try to make space to single-mindedly focus on God. It is a needed moment in our yearly rhythm to clear away the dusty and cluttered grip we often can’t seem to loosen so that God’s Spirit begins to possess us in a new way. I’ve chosen to focus on the role of honesty on this second Sunday of Lent, which seems fitting because so much of what needs to be cleared out and swept away are the lies we tell ourselves. The second half of Psalm 19 points us truth-seekers precisely on that path:

The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.

The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

10 More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

11 Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.

12 Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.

13 Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.

14 Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

In a world of “alternative facts” and governmental secrecy, combined with those of us who live in quiet desperation, we must not allow ourselves to compartmentalize the truth. We must see ourselves as members, one to another. We must see ourselves in a coherence with the world, which includes all the good and all the ugly. No separation.

Burley Coulter, an iconic character in Wendell Berry’s fictional Port William membership, says to a world he knows is coming to an end:

“What is done is done forever. I know that. I’m saying that the ones who have been here have been the way they were, and the ones of us who are here now are the way we are and to know that is the only chance we’ve got, dead and living, to be here together. I ain’t saying we don’t have to know what we ought to have been and ought to be, but we oughtn’t to let that stand between us. That ain’t the way we are. The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t. What has been here, not what ought to have been, is what I have to claim. I have to be what I’ve been and own up to it, no secret faults. Because before long I’m going to have to look the Old Marster in the face, and when He says, ‘Burley Coulter?’ I hope to say ‘Yes, Sir. Such as I am, that’s me.’” (p. 136-137)

Or perhaps Jesus puts it better,

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

“See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (Luke 13:34-35)