Wednesday, October 4, 2017

When We Don't Have Words Adequate

"What do I do?"

A student spoke these words into a beginning-of-the-year group conversation in early September. The group was collecting topics and questions our community wanted to explore over the course of the semester. We were popcorn-naming topics like pluralism and salvation and the psalms and liturgical practice and Colin Kaepernick and racial justice and it was the same day hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. This student's question, she said, was specifically about her concern for her abuelo, who was then-lost to the blackout that engulfed the whole island. "What do I do?" she said. "That's my question today."

This student's abuelo has since been accounted for; he survived the storm and is well. But her question, "What do I do?" hasn't gone away.

Systemic racism, police brutality, and flag controversies/liturgies. What do I do?

The U.S. upholds its steadfast commitment to the death penalty over against its newfound commitment to the LGBTQ+ community. What do I do?

The military-industrial complex of which President Eisenhower warned us more that 50 year ago now determines us and our livelihoods in ways we can't even see anymore, much less change. What do I do?

Las Vegas and so much horrific, senseless death. What do I do?

Thoughts and prayers are popularly dismissed as insufficient, and it's important to both see and name how politicians have hidden behind these words. Still, the invalidation of thoughts and prayers in a world in which the direct ability of the citizen to shape public policy is not always clear or believable, even if it is finally true, raises existential anxiety to a thundering crescendo of the soul: what can I do?

There are senators to call, and we should, but the phone calls don't lift the haunting question from our shoulders, don't make the crises go away. Neither does the self-righteous other-shaming that saturates our social media. Gun laws will help, and it is hard to argue with grief that takes the shape of calls for legislative action in the face of the unthinkable, but even then, there will be steps forward and steps backward, and it will be one day, even if it is not this day for you, difficult to know what to do when one of the things we are doing along the way is discovering the limits of what we can do. 

Which isn't to say we should stop. Which isn't to say passivity is an option. But it is to say, says the preacher, that we need, daily, new and renewed imaginations sustained by the God who is able to do more than we can ask or imagine.

Please hear me now. We should not stop, but we should sometimes pause. We should make time and space to reflect, to recenter, so that the future passage of background check legislation, for example, doesn't represent the full victory, doesn't stop us short of critically examining and challenging the American culture of war and military might which gun violence imitates, as if this country's unique propensity for gun violence and her unprecedented-in-the-history-of-humanity levels of military spending were distinct and separate realities. Lest we settle for and lazily celebrate our bipartisan shortcomings. Lest we give up on the prophets' dreams that do not fit either party's platform. Lest we come to believe that it really is us versus them and not one family in need of deep listening, new life, and healing that neither "side" can accomplish for or apart from the other.

What if, for healing, it is okay to be empty? To not be sure what comes next? What if clinging to the answer I am sure of prevents the new possibility I do not see? (Which is not to say one shouldn't risk submitting the answer, only that to submit an answer with an open hand is a special kind of love). What if, for healing, we need to be empty? What if being empty involves being present to God and one another when, without answers or certainty, we show up anyway? Empty of answers, full of our exasperation and grief. But, then, it's a real question: without the certainty of solutions for the things that grieve us, what do we possible have to give one another?

In Community and Growth, Jean Vanier writes,
Some people, who cannot see what nourishment they could be bringing, do not realize that they can become bread for others. They have no confidence that their word, their smile, their being, or their prayer could nourish others and help them rediscover trust. Jesus calls us to give our lives for those we love. If we eat the bread transformed into the Body of Christ, it is so that we become bread for others.
Others find their own nourishment is to give from an empty basket! It is the miracle of the multiplication of the bread. 'Lord, let me seek not so much to be consoled as to console.' I am always astonished to discover that I can give a nourishing talk when I feel empty, and that I can still transmit peace when I feel anguished. Only God can perform that sort of miracle.
Vanier hints at the possibility that our emptiness itself can be a gift of nourishment for others. In Silence and Honeycakes, Rowan Williams tells the story of a desert monk who seeks out one of the elder (and legendary) desert monks. The elder asks the young monk about his spiritual shortcomings and temptations. The younger denies having any, for which the elder names his thanks before confessing his own shortcomings and temptations. "To tell the truth," says the younger, "it is the same with me." Exactly by not having the right answer, the elder opens space for what was, until then, unimaginable movement forward. I do think humility and the self-emptying that is confession will play an important role in the diffusing of our present antagonisms.

Similarly, Dean Cynthia Kittredge, quoting Ellen Davis, rightly sees the ancient practice of lament - modeled in the psalms, inhabited by Christ - as the possibility of emptiness that, spoken in the presence of God, can nourish, can "trace a movement from complaint to confidence in God." 

What do I do? If you are empty, be empty. Be empty in the presence of God. I believe the student did that when she asked the question she couldn't answer answer in the presence of her sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ. If you are empty, be empty. And trust God enough to share that, too. For the sharing, even of emptiness, is the beginning of the Offertory movement that begins the Eucharist, is the beginning of blessing, new life, and hope. The lifting up of brokenness for which we have neither words or answers is itself a gift of God that leads to the banquet of God.