Doing the Impossible
“If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
2 Kings 5:13
These are indeed strange and trying times. I could quote the most famous of opening lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .,” except I can’t tell right now how these are the best of times.
Methodist pastor Jenny Smith has a blog, and a recent post which she titled “The Second Marathon: A Word for Pastors on Walking the New Normal,” rings true for many of us. I confess that I’ve been hit with exhaustion myself, coupled with headaches and body aches, and I can only imagine the burden that our pastors—and all who feel responsible for the care of others—have been feeling for 18 months now. In a Zoom meeting with one of our churches, an elder mentioned that he was recovering from COVID. He said he had “the usual symptoms for the Delta variant”—including headaches and exhaustion. So my fear of COVID started to simmer, but thank God I was able to get a test appointment on short notice (let’s hear it for LA County and the San Gabriel Valley Airport), and in just a day they told me the test was negative. So I was happy to know that my issue isn’t directly COVID, it’s just the burnout and exhaustion related to dealing with COVID.
The mind-numbing persistence of COVID has been hard enough to deal with, but then last weekend happened. Haiti was hit with another devastating earthquake, just a month after their president was assassinated. The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan led to an almost instantaneous collapse of the country, and a mad scramble of thousands of evacuees, as the West’s noble attempt at nation-building, partnered with corrupt officials, was exposed for the mirage it was. Our hearts were flooded with the desperation of people whose dreams of liberation were shattered in an instant.
I think the depth of Haiti’s pain was expressed with almost mundane acceptance. After so many calamities, the tragedy of the earthquake was not viewed on its own, but with the hope that it wouldn’t reach the level of destruction of the 2010 earthquake that claimed over 200,000 lives, and the sad praise that Haitians are among the most resilient of peoples. But aid is coming in, and you may help with prayer and donations through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance—go to https://pda.pcusa.org/situation/haiti/ for more information, and to give.
In the midst of all of this, life goes on. In June, we invited Presbytery folks to meet on different topics as we seek to be more active in combating racism. The “Dialogue on Racism” group begins this week. The groups on “Reforming Presbytery Practices” and “Reparations for African-Americans” have been meeting, and we have had some great discussions. One challenge that comes up regarding reparations is the enormity of the problem. Not only are we talking about millions of people and 400 years of slavery and its aftereffects, there is a dizzying variety of perspectives and situations. For some of us, slavery was woven into the very fabric of the nation of the USA, so full reparation would require a dismantling of what we understand as America. For others, the impact of slavery is seemingly over, and over 60% of the nation do not support the idea of reparations at all.
Rev. Dr. Mark Lomax, a PC(USA) pastor and professor at Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, spoke with the GA Special Committee on Racism, Truth & Reconciliation on the issue of reparations in a Zoom meeting, which was recorded and can be seen here. In the meeting, Dr. Lomax addresses the enormity of the problem—as well as the despair he has felt when trying to get the PC(USA) to move from studies and presentations to a change of heart. Even as he names the anger he and others feel about the stubborn pervasiveness of anti-Black racism, and when it seems there is really nothing that can be done to turn this brokenness around, he reaches into his Christian learning and points to the only solution he believes will heal us: relationships, and forgiveness.
With relationships, we learn to care about each other, and hear our stories, which lead to not just an intellectual exercise, but a change of heart—essentially, the gateway to the Gospel, confession and repentance. How can we connect on a level so that our personal experiences repel the lies that we are told about people of different races? How can we come to love each other enough so that when they are hurt, we hurt, and we step forward to defend them? I have been struck with the passion of US military veterans who have expressed love for the people of Afghanistan, and who have been their most outspoken defenders, especially of their Afghan colleagues who are now in danger.
But even if we love others, we dare not confess if we fear vengeance. We can confess to God, because we know that God forgives. In the order of worship in John Calvin’s Geneva, the confession came after the sermon, because the sermon should give the assurance that broken as we are, God has grace enough to forgive. Dr. Lomax pointed to the call to forgive, even as oppressed peoples—and the African-American community, especially the Black Church, have demonstrated time and again that ability to forgive.
Can it be that easy, when faced with what seems like impossible problems, to open our hearts to each other, and to trust in God’s grace, and the grace of our siblings in Christ? Of course what sounds simple is very, very hard, if we want to hold on to our illusion of control. But that control really is an illusion—the pandemic, the spikes of violence against self and others, the very weather and movement of the earth show us that we are not in charge. Maybe letting go, and letting God work through us, is the answer. What a true test of our faith, to open our hands and our hearts to care for others, to forgive, and to accept forgiveness.
I have been thinking myself about ways I have put myself and my efforts ahead of God’s will. I ask that you pray for me as I take a break for a couple of weeks, and generally step back, so that I may listen better for God and lean more on God’s grace.
See you after Labor Day. As always, be gentle with yourselves, and with each other.