But Have Not Love

silenced

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

‘Tis the season to celebrate love, it seems. Last week was Valentine’s Day, and today’s RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-a-Day reflection word is love.

Love is central to my theological and spiritual understanding of the world. I’m not talking about hearts and cupids, schmoopy puppy love here. I’m talking soul-shaking, boundary-shattering, grace-soaked, all-infusing love that is synonymous with the name of the Holy. That stuff. The reason for living. Love between God and creature, between an individual and the world, between two people: lovers, parents, children, siblings, friends, lived out in a myriad of ways as unique as snowflakes. Love. Love Divine. Love that makes us human and whole.

But when we talk about love, when we use and over-use the word, when we say it so often it starts to sound small and fathomable and domestic– like a word rather than like The Word– I’ve found a painful dissonance. Lately, I’ve felt excluded from conversations about love. Felt excluded when it comes to the most inclusive thing in the world. Felt silenced when it comes to the most powerful force I know.

And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling excluded in conversations about love, nor is divorce the only instance where reflecting on love can be painful. What does it mean to speak of love if love has been removed, has withered or faded, was never there? How does a child learn love if one’s parents were not loving? How does a friend trust in love if one’s trust has been violated? How does someone risk loving if love has been a place of pain and loss? How does one claim and celebrate love if that love is silenced or shamed?

What if we have not love?

Our love is our human way of living in love with God, the world, and one another. As such, it is an imperfect reflection of Love Itself. I can accept that there are times and places where we glimpse the Holy, and there are times and places where the word love comes with brokenness and pain and fragile, fearful hope for healing. For people walking that latter road, just starting the conversation– or knowing it’s not a conversation in which they want to participate at this time– can be painful enough.

So today, here’s to love that is wrapped in pain. Here’s to love that has been silenced and closeted. Here’s to love that stretches tender shoots out of the bitter destruction of broken hearts and lives and relationships. Here’s to love that is re-framed following abuse and neglect and betrayal. Here’s to love that is flawed and incomplete and imperfect. Here’s to love we aren’t ready to talk about. Here’s to love that’s too complex to grasp or name. Here’s to love that’s so big we can’t get our hearts, let alone our words, around it. Here’s to love that is a tiny portion of God’s own self.

Even if it hurts, even if we’re afraid, even if we have to whisper when we’d rather shout– or rather be safe and silent: Here’s to Love.

Sermon: The Power of Power

hand fist power“The Power of Power”

(January 6, 2013) In any given injustice or imbalance, one must always trace the power dynamic. Who has power? Who is being dis-empowered? Who is afraid of losing power? Who willingly relinquishes it? Jesus’ life is filled with the questions, and he calls us to think of true power very differently… (Matthew 2:1-12)

Fragments for the Fragmented

Lifting the broken Body of Christ, tears in my eyes. Photo by UMNS

Late last week, I was contacted by fellow pastor and blogger Drew “Pastor Mack,” who was planning to write about the communion witness in which I participated at General Conference on May 3. He asked for my permission and to further pick my brain a bit, which I gladly granted, and I feel that his resulting post was a fair representation of what I said.

I subsequently posted his link on my facebook page, and followed the comments there and on his blog. Some common threads emerged, which I would like to engage a little bit further.  A central critique by both Drew and many commenters centers around whether the action (commonly called a protest– I’ll get to that later) was inclusive or exclusive, unifying or divisive, and potentially politicized (in a bad way). All of it centers on what we believe about communion.

So if you will, take a journey with me through some sacramental theology.

Who Can Serve Communion (and When)?

One early response on my facebook page suggested that because the General Conference schedule already offered communion once a day, consecrated by a bishop, that this communion witness on the floor was offensive or divisive. A commenter on Pastor Mack’s blog stated that she assumed in the context of General Conference that only a bishop would be eligible to preside over communion. Both of these statements run counter to how I understand the sacrament of communion. As a sacrament, Eucharist is a sign (and outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace, if I remember my sacramental theology definitions correctly). It is a visible, tangible way of us living out our belief. It is a gift from God to us. Celebrating Eucharist once a year, once a month, once a day, or one hundred times a day cannot diminish the significance or holiness of this act. Any diminished sacredness is in us, not in the sacrament. And any ordained elder is eligible to preside at the communion table. In fact, the effectiveness, so to speak, of the sacrament is not contingent upon the presider, because the one truly offering the Eucharist is God. No one can appropriate or steal communion. I can’t make “mine” what already belongs to God. Whenever two or three gather in Christ’s name, he has promised to be among us; whenever those two or three break bread and share a cup, they remember him. As a means of grace (Methodist church speak word), communion might be the place where those who do not yet know or experience Christ find a moment of grace, a beginning on the journey. As such, no celebration of communion trumps any other. We never know where and how grace might be made known.

Is the Table Open?

“This was communion for a fragment,” one person wrote.

My reply, “No. For the fragmented.”

Several people seemed to feel that this service of communion was a private one, only for the GLBTQ community and their allies. It’s sad to me that people would assume that, and I’m actually not sure why they did. We were a big honking clump of people (what I’ve learned my friend and colleague Elissa calls a “holy blob”) in the middle of a huge room, at a communion table. Once the elements were prayed over, wafers and cups were taken out from the table and offered to those around the room and outside the voting area “bar.” We were presumably all Methodists to some extent, and one of the most powerful and profound points of Methodist theology is the practice of the open table. All are welcome at the table. Always. That doesn’t mean all *feel* welcome at the table, and I can understand if one is not feeling in the spirit to take communion, or not feeling part of the body. Again, that is the spiritual place of the individual, not a reflection on the sacrament.

We did anticipate at some level that people might not feel invited to the table. Those of us who planned the witness wanted to issue an invitation, but didn’t want to “mic check” it, so we went with song. What we would have loved to sing was “Welcome” (all are welcome in this place/all of us are welcome here), but while we had the, ahem, magnificent songwriter Mark Miller in our midst, we had no piano, and it’s a harder tune to carry if not everyone knows it really well. We also ruled out “One Bread, One Body,” because the marked contrast between the preceding vote and the words of all of us being one with differences washed away was a bit too much. So we sang “Let us break bread together.” Together. Lord, have mercy on us.

Anyway, it is again counter to my very understanding of the sacrament of communion to ever presume that a table at a Methodist gathering is closed. Our communion table is always open– well, always open on one side, the receiving side. On the side of the presider, we have a closed communion table, but that’s the big question isn’t it?

Now, I have been on the other end of things, and been invited to a worship service where it would be rude not to attend, but where it was made clear I would not be welcome at the communion table. It was in the context of a Roman Catholic colleague renewing his vows to his order, and it was known that I was a former catholic now Methodist candidate for ministry. I had felt that this had been thrown in my face a few times recently, and was hurting, and in thinking about going to the service, realized that I wanted to go up to the altar with my hands outstretched and make the priest look me in the face and deny me the body and blood of Christ. Out of my own pain and anger. I chose not to attend the service, rather than either sit sullenly in the pew or come to the table of the Lord out of spite. This illustrates both the importance to me of the open table, and leads me to our next question.

In What Spirit Should We Preside Over & Take Communion?

This is not a protest. This is a sacrament. photo by UMNS

I hear the word protest a lot, associated with the action on the floor at General Conference on May 3.

There was a protest that same day. It happened just a little later, and I participated in that too, although less visibly and less stridently. When the people who were on the floor around the communion table refused to leave, when they prevented the business of the conference from resuming with their presence and their singing (“What does the Lord Require of You?”), that was an act of protest.

It followed on the heels of an act of witness. An observation of a sacrament. A moment of prayer and worship, offered publicly and in response to a public vote, but not as a way of swaying anyone or articulating any message apart from what is always articulated in communion: our brokenness and God’s grace.

Pastor Mack wrote, “no matter what our divisions, some things should remain sacred. This should be true, most of all, for the Lord’s Table.” Another commenter described the use of the elements of communion as “props” in a political scheme.

At the same time, many people who were present in Tampa and those who were watching from the live stream describe their experience of the moment as spiritual, powerful, prophetic, or pastoral. One person wrote: “You all stayed and performed an act of Christian faith that reached across the world through this picture. You hallowed our denomination by this holy act performed in the center of a broken place.”

Much of this seems to hinge on the spirit in which the communion was offered and received. Was it offered out of anger? Taken out of spite? Lifted up to drive home a point? Some saw it this way. I knew there was a danger of that.

But, as I wrote and as Drew quoted on his blog, those who decided to offer communion in that moment saw it as  “one standout example of what it means, theologically and spiritually, to live in the broken but believe in the whole and hope for the future we cannot see. Was there ever greater brokenness than the division, distrust, and ungodliness that led to Christ’s sacrifice? Is there any better example of how the broken becomes whole than the bread shared, the cup poured out to make us one?” Elsewhere, “what we decided was that the moment, no matter how the vote went, would be one of brokenness and deep pain for roughly half the room no matter what. And yet, in this brokenness and division, we are still one, and we still believe that God is able to bring healing, indeed salvation, out of the deepest pain and division.”

Even Drew acknowledges this in a comment, before restating that the “private” nature of the action (see above) was what he took issue with: “It is always a broken body that gathers at the table, and always one desperately in need of grace…”

Not everyone was in the same spirit that day. Are we ever when we celebrate the Eucharist? For me and for many, the act was one of deepest reverence, a witness and testimony to the belief in a God of justice and liberation, compassion and deep grace, in a world that has not always demonstrated those traits.

Can Communion Be (Over) Politicized?

This brings us to the most common critique I have heard following the May 3 witness: communion should never be political.

Now, I went to Boston University School of Theology, so all my theology has a strong social justice theme laced through it, for the better if you ask me, and all of my understandings are peppered with a preference for the radical, political, earth-shaking nature of Christ’s life and ministry. Jesus was a consummate political strategist. He was a master of metaphor, using story and parable, and reinterpreting ritual and pomp to articulate a new worldview, one we call the Reign of God. This is not a bad thing. I’m not saying Jesus was a politician in the way we think of our politicians today– sleazy, selfish, pick a disparaging adjective. Nor am I claiming that Jesus manipulated the people around him (although all speech, particularly rhetorical, prophetic speech, is manipulative in the best possible way). Rather, what I am saying is that Jesus was a savvy, brilliant man, who used the secular and religious rituals and symbols of his day to cast his vision, and who flipped and reframed the symbols around him into vessels for the Gospel he was preaching.

Consider the triumphant entry into Jerusalem (see Borg and Crossan, The Last Week), a dramatic and brilliant reimagining of the Roman governor’s show of might and worldly power the week of the Passover. Jesus flips this pomp and circumstance on its head, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a war horse, surrounded by children and peasants with palm branches rather than soldiers with spears. That’s not an accident. That’s brilliant political symbolism. Choose this day, his actions scream: who is your King? Under whose Reign will you live?

So when we come to the Last Supper, we also can’t ignore the religious symbolism Jesus is playing with here. It’s a Seder, a central focus of the Passover observance, a time of reflecting on suffering and bitterness, on God’s deliverance. Jesus layers on top of this ritual a new meaning– the present suffering and that which is about to strike the disciples, the tears and sweat that will be shed, the blood that will be spilled, not to mark a doorpost, but to seal a heart. He creates a new Body, a new people of God, and he enacts a new covenant, signed with his own sacrifice. Then he throws himself on the mercy– or lack thereof– of his enemies, refusing to meet their violence with violence, offering forever a different Way to live and serve and die, in service to the Holy, out of love for the broken.

That’s beautiful, human, pastoral, Divine, tender, daring, spiritual, theological… and it’s also political. And communion remains political to this day. In the moment of the Eucharist, we remember what Jesus did and who he was, we proclaim his victory in the face of the world’s violence and the crushing weight of sin, and we envision the Reign of God that is a completely different spiritual, social, and political system than anything the world knows. When we hold up the bread and cup, we also hold up another Way.

Communion sets a table in the misdt of the world’s power and proclaims a new kin-dom. Communion says all when the world says some. Communion says whole when the world says broken. What’s more political than proclaiming Christ’s reign in the midst of the world’s power? What’s more political than saying all are invited to the banquet when the world teaches the wealthy and powerful 1% get the feast, and the poor must beg for crumbs?

And so to the charge of allowing communion to speak its political message, a message of wholeness in the midst of the fragmented, of liberation for all the oppressed, of unity in a moment of deep division, of hope for those who have been trod under, of welcome and inclusion for all– most especially for those who were told yet again that their lives and loves are incompatible with the Gospel when nothing could be further from the truth, of peace and healing and love and tenderness from and through a body that has allowed violence and hatred to fester in its heart– to the charge of allowing communion to be political, I plead guilty. And may I be guilty of that for many years to come.

Reflections on Romero

A final comparison has frequently been made in this conversation: the links to Archbishop Oscar Romero, the visionary and prophetic martyr for justice, who was shot to death in his mission field in San Salvador the week after Easter, 1980, just as he turned to the altar to celebrate the Eucharist.

Now I am no Oscar Romero (nor, I must emphatically state, am I suggesting above that I’m Jesus of Nazareth), and much of the theological reflection surrounding Romero and communion comes from his Roman Catholic tradition. However, I too have Roman Catholic roots, and the sacramental theology of sacrifice and witness as linked to the Eucharist resonates strongly with me.

In this 2001 essay, “Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed by It”,  William Cavanaugh explores the links between martyrdom (from Greek, “witness”) and communion. He cites Romero’s decision to hold one Mass in the entire archdiocese the week following the assassination of Rutilio Grande, effectively “forcing” the body to commune together. Cavanaugh writes: “Romero intended the one eucharist to be an anticipation of the kingdom, of the day when rich and poor would feast together, of the day when the body of Christ would not be wounded by divisions… Under these circumstances, the single mass also served to illumine and to judge the ongoing divisions between rich and poor. The single mass, just like the martyrs, did not create conflict, but rather shone a light on it and revealed the truth about it.”

Like Pastor Mack, Cavanaugh ties this conversation about the meaning of communion to Paul’s words in the first Letter to the Corinthians about “discerning the body” as an important criteria for receiving communion in the proper spirit. Cavanaugh writes, “Discerning the body must mean being able to identify truthfully where the body is not whole, where divisions exist.” You see, breaking bread in the midst of the broken is not a failure to discern the body, but a proper response to it. To break the bread and deny the brokenness in the body, that, Cavanaugh claims (and I agree), is a failure to discern the Body of Christ in all its messy complexity.

Cavanaugh continues:

Fortunately, our eucharistic communion gives us hope that this is not the final word. Besides shining a light on the divisions that exist, discerning the body includes an exercise in dissolving those divisions, blurring the lines between “them” and “us.” In the body of Christ, Paul continues to tell the Corinthians, people are distinguished from each other, not by class or race or nationality, but by charisms given them by the Holy Spirit. Each has a different role to play in the service of the whole, and the weakest members are the most indispensable, to be treated with the greatest honor. Therefore, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). The eucharist gives us hope by helping us to discern the deep reality that all people are members or potential members of the body of Christ. The body of Christ transgresses artificial national borders that separate the United States from El Salvador or Iraq.

That is the truth I hope I lifted up on May 3, in an act of worship, prayer, and witness. By naming the division and brokenness in the body and refusing to sweep it under the rug, but choosing instead to stand in the very heart of that brokenness, I hope I was part of God’s reminder to all people: no matter how much we tear at each other, no matter how divided, no matter how vile our treatment of our siblings in Christ who are GLBTQ is, this division is not an act of God. Violence, oppression, hatred, bigotry, ignorance, apathy, and holier-than-thou piety are not acts of God. Scheming and manipulation and infighting and vote counting are not acts of God. Weaving the broken and whole together, drawing the circle wider than human arms can reach, extending forgiveness and grace that are never warranted or earned, casting a vision of a more radical, more inclusive kin-dom than the world can possibly imagine, this is God’s work, and the work to which Christ’s Body is called.

May we remember. Not to simply call to our minds. To reflect– and by reflect I mean as a mirror– the life and witness of Christ. May we relive and retell and re-be the Body, broken and whole, the life poured out for the world. Every time we break the bread and share the cup, we proclaim a victory, we offer ourselves as a sacrifice alongside Christ, and we re-member his fragmented yet gloriously whole Body.

The Death Penalty and The United Methodist Church

In addition to being proud of my state, I am proud to be part of a denomination that takes a strong stance against the death penalty.

On the subject of capital punishment, The United Methodist Church says:

We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.
(2008 UMC Book of Discipline, accessed online here)

This powerful and prophetic stance of my denomination reflects both our deep commitment to grace– the possibility that people can be transformed and forgiven, even after the most terrible actions, and our commitment to restorative justice– the belief that healing for the victims, survivors, and perpetrators of violence comes not through punishment and perpetuating the cycles of anger, pain, and violence, but through building new life and new relationship out of the ashes of past injury. Of restorative justice, we say:

Most criminal justice systems around the world are retributive. These retributive justice systems profess to hold the offender accountable to the state and use punishment as the equalizing tool for accountability. In contrast, restorative justice seeks to hold the offender accountable to the victimized person, and to the disrupted community. Through God’s transforming power, restorative justice seeks to repair the damage, right the wrong, and bring healing to all involved, including the victim, the offender, the families, and the community. The Church is transformed when it responds to the claims of discipleship by becoming an agent of healing and systemic change.
(2008 UMC Book of Discipline, accessed online here)

Most importantly, both the opposition to capital punishment and the practice of restorative justice stand in the legacy of the biblical witness and the life and teachings of Jesus, and are echoed by the giants of non-violence (Christian and not) such as Gandhi and King. For Christians in general and United Methodists in particular, Christ’s example of radical forgiveness is a challenge and a model toward which we strive. For those who consider themselves non religious or participants in other spiritual and religious traditions, the witness of great moral teachers and the desire to live with compassion and love lead us in the same direction.

People of faith and believers in love have an opportunity to speak a powerful word of challenge to the world: it is not easy to forgive and to find healing and restoration after terrible violence, but it is the hope to which we are called.

Justice with Temperance (the Death Penalty and our Better Angels)

Melissa and Ty Jenkins, photo accessed from WCAX.com

I’m proud to live in a state that does not have the death penalty. I’m a staunch pacifist, and I believe that nonviolence isn’t weakness, but requires profound strength. It is by no means easy.

Vermont State Police arrested a couple yesterday, and charged them with second degree murder in the death of Melissa Jenkins. Allen and Patricia Prue allegedly worked together to lure Miss Jenkins out of her home, calling to ask her for assistance with their vehicle. Mr. Prue confessed to strangling the young woman outside her vehicle and then the couple allegedly worked together to dispose of her body and other evidence.

What they have done is beyond belief, defies understanding. It literally disgusts me. There’s no apparent motive,  just deranged behavior, cold-blooded and brutal slaughter. It’s inhuman. On the simplest, most reactionary level of myself, I want to see them suffer for what they did to Melissa and to her son, Ty.

But wanting them to suffer and actually advocating for it, making it happen, are entirely different things. That difference, thin a line as it may be to walk, represents for me the fullness of what it means to live with compassion, temperance, justice, and love. It is what it means to be human and to yearn for the Holy.

The comments sprout up wherever the stories about Melissa Jenkins and the Prues are posted, calling for mob justice for Melissa’s killers (“string them up in the streets!”), advocating torture, hoping for them to be strangled as Miss Jenkins was strangled, and bemoaning the fact that Vermont does not have the death penalty. Again, I don’t begrudge anyone those feelings. They come from our deep sense of moral outrage at a senseless and unthinkable crime. They bubble up out of our shared humanity and the horror of how profoundly the Prues violated the injunction to care for and protect our fellow human beings.

Allen and Patricia Prue, murder suspects in the case of Melissa Jenkins, photo accessed at WCAX.com

But we cannot become the sort of monsters who act out of our most primal instincts. That accomplishes nothing. That doesn’t separate us from the alleged murders.

I categorically oppose the death penalty. My opposition falls into two main categories.

1. The death penalty does not serve any practical purpose. It does not save money to execute criminals as compared to housing them in prisons for the durations of their lives. This is because of the lengthy (and often economically and racially biased) appeals process associated with convicted inmates on death row. Furthermore, it does not deter people from committing murder, as most murders are committed by people who are either criminally insane (and therefore incapable of grasping and being deterred by consequences), or in the heat of passion (and are therefore not thinking about consequences and not deterred by them).

But more importantly in my opinion,

2. The death penalty does not enact justice, and reduces the community seeking justice to the same level as the killers.

It’s not that we are holier-than-thou. We’re not. As I said in my post earlier this week, the fact that we all have to face is that this evil we are confronting, this instinct or propensity toward violence, is in all of us. From that post: “We are the unknown killer[s] on the roadside, separating a mother from a child, snuffing a life because we can. We are the mob before Pilate, along the road to Calvary, jeering at the foot of the cross.” Somewhere deep in our reptilian, fight or flight brains, we all have the potential to be monsters.

What makes us human, what makes us better than our brokenness, is the choice to act not out of that base, reactionary brain. What makes us a human family, a people of faith in something other or more than our own fears and faults, is the choice to live out of love.

We think, in the moment, that vengeance is justice, that it is fair to give to others what they have dished out. Even when we can acknowledge that killing the killers cannot bring back the victims, we can’t help but think it would feel really good to see that kind of retribution served. If everybody in the Northeast Kingdom got to watch the painful execution of Allen and Patricia Prue and then dance around in a modern day Purim ritual, we think that might help us heal. But the truth is, it won’t. Time will help us heal. Compassion will help us heal. Helping Melissa’s family and her son Ty (for example, there is a trust fund set up here) will help us heal. Learning to somehow trust again enough to pull our cars over and lend a helping hand– and I tell you, that will take some time for me– will help us heal.

I said on Monday that there is something stronger than violence and death and despair: Love. Love has the power to pull us up out of the darkness, away from the worst of ourselves. But we have to let it. For people of faith, we have to ask ourselves: if our religion doesn’t make us better people, doesn’t challenge us to rise above instinct, what good is it? If God– whose nature is Love– doesn’t make us more loving, then what sort of god do we serve?

We aren’t any different from the murder suspects unless we choose to be.

Will you join me in calling for justice– seasoned with temperance– for Melissa’s killers?

Spirituality that speaks to the rest of us

I have bad days. Bad weeks, even.

Last week was one such example. I was feeling like “church” was an old, dead concept (I still think this, at least in the way most of us think about church), and that progressives/liberals like myself would have no space whatsoever in the spiritual culture of the future– I even uttered the phrase “Maybe Rick Santorum is right; there are no liberal Christians.” I contemplated entering my backup profession, tending bar, since I would still lend a listening ear, be around people, and have an excuse to mix a mean martini.

But yesterday, more than 3,700 people read a blog post of mine, more than tripling the previous record for most-active day on this blog. And this was not a post about some of the things I normally yammer on about that drum up controversy: homosexuality and abortion and racism and church metrics (hey it drums up *some* controversy).

This was a post about faith. It was a spiritual response to tragedy in my community, and I discussed evil and violence, hope and love, and the need to cling to something stronger and truer than the worst of ourselves: Love, which I name as a synonym for God. I didn’t tone down or hide what I believe and how I understand faith. These are my actual spiritual beliefs.

And apparently, I’m not alone. Like, in a big way not alone. People from my church and other churches, people from my community and other communities, self-professed atheists and agnostics and practitioners of all sorts of different spiritual beliefs read the post, shared the post, emailed and commented and said my words touched them, spoke to them.

And that touched *me.*

Sometimes I feel like I’m one of the only ones who thinks faith can be something other than adhering to a set of laws, and screaming those laws at other people until they adhere to them too, that faith is not so much about what we think, but who we are and how we live, and that the things we name as sacred: God, love, the human heart, the gift of the natural world around us, the power and vastness of the cosmos– that these are all really the same thing, and we call them by different names. But in drawing together around the tragedy of Melissa Jenkins’ death, you all have shown me that none of us are alone. In my extended circle of connection, there are more than 4,000 5,000 people (between yesterday and today) who believe in the power and sacredness of love to conquer over fear and pain, like little ripples of hope spreading out. We’re a megachurch without the churchy part, a living body of heart and soul, bound by compassion and tenderness and fragile hope in the face of terror. We represent a new spirituality, one that lifts up the ways we are connected, not the ways we are apart.

You may not dig on Jesus like I do. That’s okay. It’s never been my goal to convert others to what I believe. It is my goal to build connection between hearts and other hearts, and between those hearts and what is holy and sacred and life-giving and true. It is my belief that faith in anything should inspire us to be better versions of ourselves and to live together with more tenderness and compassion and justice. In this tragedy, and in all the tragedies and triumphs to come, you all have reminded me that we are stronger because we are together, and no one who holds on to the hope in Love does so alone.

The Problem of Evil

Photo from Burlington Free Press

The community where I grew up, affectionately known as the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, is reeling this morning.

33-year old Melissa Jenkins, a single mom and a high school physics teacher and basketball coach, disappeared Sunday night. Her car was found late in the evening, pulled alongside the road near her house, running, with her two year old son snug and safe in the back seat.

After a day of searching, police announced last night (press conference on WCAX news) that they believe a body found in the woods a few miles away is that of Jenkins (Burlington Free Press article).

I’m trying to place Melissa. She is less than a year older than I (I’ll be 33 in May), and she grew up in Danville, a few towns away, and taught high school at St. Johnsbury Academy, neighboring and rival high school to my own Lyndon Institute. Our sons are almost the same age. I don’t know that we ever crossed paths, but I went to school with one of her cousins.

Nothing is known or released about the circumstances of her disappearance and murder, but one suspicion that fits with a series of disappearances a few years ago in southern Vermont and New Hampshire is that she may have pulled over to help an apparent stranded motorist, leaving her son in the car to check someone or something (family are now suggesting she may have received a phone call from someone she knew, asking for help or requesting that she meet them someplace). That’s a behavior we pride ourselves on in Vermont: stopping to help a person in need. It’s just a random guess, but might explain why a devoted mom was separated from her son, a circumstance that saved the boy’s life.

A friend posted on my facebook wall late last night, asking what “Pastor Becca” would say to people in pain right now. This was my response:

I don’t speak about or preach about evil often. I don’t buy into some dude with horns and a pitchfork, and I don’t think “evil” has anything to do with political parties or contraception or who marries who. But days like today remind me that evil is real. We don’t get to blame some amorphous devil; it lives in us, in places where we thought it could never be. And the story of faith– any faith, really, not just mine– is that evil doesn’t have the last say. Death and violence and brokenness and grief and pain overwhelm us for a time, but they don’t win. They don’t get the last word. There is something more powerful, more true. I call it Love, which is just another synonym for God in my book.

Our news these past couple of weeks has been filled with violence and tragedy, and as those in the Christian faith prepare for Holy Week, we walk headlong into a story of violence and tragedy. Yes, there is hope at the end, an empty tomb, an open sky. But first there is a mob, a betrayal of trust, a denial of love, a mock trial, a beating, a gruesome execution. Before we revel in the glory of Love triumphant, we must face the darkness of evil. Not evil personified in a person or thing. Evil that lives in us.

It doesn’t matter if a person is 17 or 33, a teacher, a student, or an Afghani civilian, with a baby in the backseat, skittles in the pocket, or carrying a jug of water. No one deserves to die. And the suffering inflicted on them is not some random disaster, but is human evil, the worst of ourselves.

Yes, we are Trayvon Martin. We are Melissa Jenkins. We are the Afghani children. But we are also the soldier who cracks under pressure, firing into a group of his allies. We are the neighborhood watchman, overzealous in pursuit of his vision of justice, harboring prejudices about skin color and clothing choices. We are the unknown killer on the roadside, separating a mother from a child, snuffing a life because we can. We are the mob before Pilate, along the road to Calvary, jeering at the foot of the cross.

I don’t believe in a talking snake and a tempting fruit. I see all the evidence I need to of a fallen humanity, desperately in need of love, grace, and a way to start again.

This is the problem of evil. It is not God’s problem, but ours. It is not God’s creation, but ours. It lives in us; it maims and kills through us. We are a broken, brutal people, and we need a light of hope.

The story of faith– of any faith– is that there is something stronger, truer, deeper, than the darkness that lurks in our communities, our safe places, our very selves. There is something we can hold on to, to pull us back out of the pain and grief and anger and fear. There is something that has the last say over death and violence and despair.

I name that something. Its nature and name: Love.

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