“That which needs healing must not be hidden from God.”
These are the words a monk shared with me a few years ago as I began my silent retreat at Abbey of Gethsemane. In these days of much loss, grief, and disappointment, I offer them to you.
And I offer these words for contemplation and honest hope (inspired by a poem written by Dag Hammarskjold):
The road, We shall follow it. The playfulness, We shall rediscover it. The cup, We shall drink from it. The pain, We shall reveal it. The hope, We shall hold onto it. The joy, We shall recover it. The love, We shall not forget it. The road, We shall endure it. Together.
We know we have an idol when the threat of its removal or being taken from us provokes a strong defensive response. The Spirit of God is always working to convict God’s children that any thing pulling us away from total allegiance to King Jesus is an idol.
So we must choose.
The problem with idols is that they are tricky little things. What starts as an object of affection becomes an object of allegiance. What starts as a meaningful endeavor becomes our meaning. We are subconsciously seduced into a commitment that goes beyond enjoyment or honor, to deep-seated loyalty. What was once adored owns our adoration. It organizes our lives, dictates priorities, or sits in the place of honor above all things.
In the Christian tradition of vices and virtues, idolatry is the outcome of disordered love.
It’s the job we love too much.
It’s the hobby we love too much.
It’s the national symbol we love too much.
We love it so much that we are willing to dehumanize another to protect it. We love it more than our neighbor. Sadly, what we fail to realize is we love it more than our self. Thankfully God loves us more than we realize we need to be loved. He compels, convicts, and sometimes through his beloved community, counsels us to give it up.
Today marks the day my Grandma Liggin died. We were close. Very close. When I was young she taught me about gardening. I can still see her sporting that sunhat while wearing navy blue pants and a sleeveless button up shirt (much like the one in the picture). Every now and then memories of us plowing rows for seed turns my thumb a little green and makes me want to plant a garden. Then I remember I’m too busy. Or too lazy. One of the two, any way.
I remember the fence she built around the garden. Yep, she built a fence. She was pretty amazing. Anyhow, the fence was meant to keep out unwanted critters. But there was a problem with the gate. It was a bit temperamental and liked to get jammed. On occasion the gate threatened to keep us out of the garden. Grandma would give it more than a few whacks with a shovel handle before we could enter (I never said she built a good fence).
I’ve been thinking about how Christ-followers are like gardeners rather than gatekeepers. When we love well and extend God’s hospitality we participate in cultivating human flourishing and home-making. The seeds of faith are plowed through obedience to Christ’s call to love God and neighbor, and the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control–grows from our lives and spills into the lives of others. Life together becomes life-giving. Any one can find a home with us and together we will learn to make our home with Christ.
Joys are celebrated. Burdens are shared. The unwanted are welcomed. The vulnerable are valued. The hurting are held. The sick are supported. Hands are washed. The widows are watched over. The displaced are defended. The fear of death is disarmed. This is human flourishing. This is home-making. It’s what happens when Christ-followers become like gardeners.
When we become like gatekeepers nothing new can be planted. Nothing new will grow from our lives or the lives of others. Many among us will feel alone. Many around us will remain displaced. The Church we call home withers and dies. Nobody is allowed in to God’s garden.
The Christian faith is a way of life connected to a story that begins in a garden (Eden), suffers in a garden (Gethsemane), re-birthed in a garden (Christ’s Resurrection) and ends in a gardened city (Revelation).
It seems we are better suited to be gardeners rather than gatekeepers.
In 1977 Frederick Buechner wrote his little book, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. There are many excerpts I could share, but what connects with me most is his description of the preaching event. It’s honest. It’s accurate. It’s as if Buechner peaked inside the window of my heart and captured in a few words the complex emotions I’ve felt for several months now.
If you are a preacher living under the expectations of people coming to the worship gathering to be fed, inspired, or encouraged, or if you find yourself feeling more like a bartender or distributer of goods and services than a pastor or truth-teller, I hope these words bring you a measure of comfort, or maybe even confidence.
Don’t forget it was written in the style, prose and language of 1977. Here’s Buechner:
“When the preacher climbs up into the pulpit. . . . He has been to a seminary and studied all that one studies in seminary. He has a degree to show for it, beyond the degree he has his ordination. . . . All of this deepens the silence with which they [the congregation] sit there waiting for him to work a miracle, and the miracle they are waiting for is that he will not just say that God is present, because they have heard it said before and it has made no great and lasting different to them, will not just speak the word of joy, hope, comedy, because they have heard it spoken before too and have spoken it among themselves, but that he will somehow make it real to them. They wait for him to make God real to them through the sacrament of bread and wine, and there is no place where the preacher is more aware of his own nakedness and helplessness than here in the pulpit as he listens to the silence of their waiting. . . . What can he say? What word can he speak with power enough to empower them, waiting there?
But let him take heart. He is called not to be an actor, a magician, in the pulpit. He is called to be himself. He is called to tell the truth as he has experienced it. He is called to be human, to be human, and that is calling enough for any man. If he does not make real to them the human experience of what it is to cry in the storm and receive no answer, to be sick at heart and find no healing, then he becomes the only one there who seems not to have had that experience because most surely under their bonnets and shawls and jackets, under their afros and ponytails, all the others there have had it whether they talk of it or not. As much as anything else, it is their experience of the absence of God that has brought them there in search of his presence, and if the preacher does not speak of that and to that, then he becomes like the captain of a ship who is the only one aboard who either does not know that the waves are twenty feet high and the decks awash or will not face up to it so that anything else he tries to say by way of hope and comfort and empowering becomes suspect on the basis of that one crucial ignorance or disingenuousness or cowardice or reluctance to speak in love any truths but the ones that people love to hear.” (pp. 39-41)
In his biography of Martin Niemoller, Matthew Hockenos offers substantial evidence of WWI German Emperor Wilhelm II’s relentless commitment to the German monarchy’s faith in “providential glory.” He believed they were chosen by God to be the hope of the world. He tied his understanding of the Christian faith with German patriotism, forming a nationalistic brand of Christianity that possessed a hold that was strong and misleading. Niemoller was held by it (and realized it later). Bonhoeffer was held by it (and realized it later). This belief laid the foundation in creating the antisemitism Germans formed and that in turn, formed them.
For instance, while dedicating a new Lutheran Church in Jerusalem in 1898, Emperor Wilhelm II said this in his dedication speech:
“From Jerusalem came the light in splendor from which the German nation became great and glorious; and what the Germanic peoples have become, they became under the banner of the cross, the emblem of self-sacrificing charity.”(19)
Social and political institutions, national policies, and moral values were all formed with this ideology working in the background. Some sort of ideology is always working in the background. It’s how civic life works.
The Emperor’s speech was met with thunderous applause by the 200 or so German Christians and pastors accompanying the Emperor’s voyage to the Holy Land. Of course if asked if the German Protestant pastorate was tied to party politics they would have responded with a resounding, “Nein!” (no in German).
In attendance at the speech in Jerusalem was Martin’s father. He was enamored with Wilhelm II, so much so he named a son after him. He was a pastor faithful to God and King.
Again, take that in. It’s subtle. Quiet. Formative. Seems innocent. Seems Christian. But in the end, it’s destructive.
Martin’s father raised him to embrace the same nationalistic brand of Christianity. No wonder Martin supported Hitler’s rise in power and antisemitic policies. Until he didn’t.
Last week I began this book by Matthew Hockenos. I have read a little about Martin Niemoller, but nothing of depth. A former German Navy officer turned Christian pastor, Niemoller was a complicated man before and after WWII. For many years he was untroubled by Hitler’s nationalism and persecution of minorities. He agreed with thousands of other pastors that minorities and dissenters were anti-Christian and disloyal to Germany. Looking back he realized that in his younger years he was subtly formed by a cultural system that did not consciously despise Jews, but did so subconsciously. He says, “I had no hatred against Jews but this whole atmosphere of noncooperation with the Jews was just that in which everybody grew up.” (12) Take that in. It’s how cultural systems work. It’s how family systems work. It’s how ideology works. Subtle. Implicit. Quiet. Formative. As Hitler’s empire grew and much genocide was dealt, Niemoller awakened to Christ in a deeper way and saw through Hitler’s rhetoric. He recognized his own nationalistic antisemitism and took a stand against Hitler’s nationalistic empire, influencing a Christian movement of protest. He was imprisoned. Following the war he felt great regret for his naive racist, anti Semitic, nationalistic disposition. Hockenos writes:
“Dachau has opened in March 1933, when the Nazis began incarcerating their enemies, just one month after Hitler came to power. Niemoller has been a free man at that time, a prominent pastor of an influential parish, and he remained at liberty until his arrest in 1937. Imprisoned in a Berlin jail and a concentration camp from 1937 to 1941, Niemoller and other famous camp inmates were tranferred by the Nazis to Dachau in 1941. ‘My alibi accounted for the years 1937-45,’ he told a German audience a few months after he and his wife visited Davhau. ‘But God was not asking me where I had been from 1937 to 1945 but from 1933 to 1945. . . and for those [earlier] years I did not have an answer.'” (2)
Niemoller later wrote his confession:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
In the words of my friend Charvalla, “May the past provoke us to examine our present and inspire us to more intentionally contribute to our future.”