An Angel in the Rock

I have a brother who builds wooden boats, / Who knows precisely how a board
Can bend or turn, steamed just exactly / Soft enough so he, with help of friends,
Can shape it to the hull. / The knowledge lies as much
Within his sure hands on the plane / As in his head;
It lies in love of wood and grain, / A rough hand resting on the satin
Of the finished deck. / Is there within us each
Such artistry forgotten / In the cruder tasks
The world requires of us, / The faster modern work
That we have / Turned our life to do?
Could we return to more of craft / Within our lives,
And feel the way the grain of wood runs true, / By letting our hands linger
On the product of our artistry? / Could we recall what we have known
But have forgotten, / The gifts within ourselves,
Each other too, / And thus transform a world
As he and friends do, / Shaping steaming oak boards
Upon the hulls of wooden boats?
—“Wooden Boats” by Judy Brown

Recently, I told you the story of Michelangelo pushing a huge piece of rock down the street. He’s moving slowly along, straining with great purpose. And a passer-by, confused, calls out, “What in the world are you doing? Why are you wielding such monumental effort and wasting so much energy on that massive old rock?” And without hesitation, Michelangelo responds, “There is nothing more important that I could be doing. You see, there’s an angel in that rock that desperately needs to be set free.”

And Michelangelo would know. He spent his life releasing divine figures of all kinds from their confines in blocks of marble. He knew that the raw materials of the world held great mystery, great hope, and great possibility. And he creatively and artistically used those materials to give structure and purpose to the deeply held beliefs of his day. His calling as an artist was to release the spirit and form of what lay hidden within and among us. So, his daily task was to labor to release angels by shaping and transforming the raw materials all around him. His work was to release the gifts within – to discover those God-given gifts and to offer them to the world.

But this work of bringing gifts, revealing gifts, offering gifts, and living gifts is work that belongs to each one of us. This is the work of Epiphany. It is the work of ministry. It will take many forms and lead in many directions. And just like Michelangelo releasing the angel in the rock, living our gifts can be just about anything that draws us out of ourselves and utilizes our energy and attention in creative, compassionate, and life-giving ways. This work, this calling, makes it possible for us, too, to release the angel in the rock of our lives by transforming the corner of the world in which we live.

But we may be tempted to say, “No. Surely not. Surely you are not calling me! . . . I am too young. I am too old. I am too busy. I am too weak. I don’t know enough. I haven’t done enough. I’m too tired. I don’t have enough resources. I don’t have enough connections. I wouldn’t know what to do, what to say, how to be. . . . Surely someone else would serve you better. Surely someone else would be a better choice. Surely you meant to call someone else. And anyway, the world is in such dire need. The stakes are awfully high. People, entire communities—young and old and everywhere in between, are slipping through the cracks. What difference can I possibly make? I am not capable or prepared to release the angel out of the rock of these situations. . . .”

But into our doubt and despair comes a preposterous word: neither fire nor flood will separate any of us from God, God’s love, and God’s saving acts of grace. Now, this does not mean that there won’t be fire and flood, but it does mean that none of it—nothing—can separate us from God. We face none of our challenges and trials alone. And neither do we live into our work and our callings alone. We are not called and then cast adrift. We are always only a breath away from the One who calls us by name and fills us with life; the One who graciously loves and deeply values each one of us; the One who restores us, protects us, and calls forth our most precious gifts.

Those gifts may feel like they are stuck in solid blocks of stone, like an angel waiting to be set free. But even as the angel waits, God calls to you and me and challenges us to see the possibilities of this moment more clearly; to stand up and speak out more passionately; to live and move and reveal and incarnate the gifts within. After all, they have the capacity to change the world.

See you in church,

An Overseer Named Peace

From Isaiah 60:1-18

People bombed his home. Death threats were common. He was arrested several times. Once, while he was in jail, someone slipped him a local Birmingham newspaper in which white religious leaders had written an article calling him and other civil rights protestors “law breakers.” So, sitting in that dark, dank jail cell, in the margins of that newspaper—and even on toilet paper—Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
One section goes like this: In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. . . .
In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”
Now, there are many striking arguments in this letter, and in this paragraph in particular. MLK isn’t primarily angered that white Christians aren’t out in force protesting in solidarity with the black community; instead, he focuses his concern on the fact that those white Christians choose not to connect their Christian faith with the Christian imperative to care for others—who they don’t consider to be part of their social group.

He presses us to consider: Who is my/your neighbor? Who are you called to love? Who is it okay not to care about?

And MLK also puzzles over the disconnect many Christians create between Christian belief and Christian behavior: Is it true that the gospel has no concern—and nothing to say—about society? … Or just what does the gospel have to say about social issues—and social injustice in particular?

I puzzle over this in my own work—serving a church, as well as teaching social ethics and courses on spiritual practice. How are we supposed to live out our faith? How should we, as Christians, respond to global warming, racism, homophobia, sexual assault, the border wall? Could these really be issues that the gospel has no concern?!

Well, frankly, I believe that attending to that vital connection—and that interdependent relationship—between social realities and spiritual development is THE essential work of faith. It is not an optional add-on or afterthought to faith; it is faith. How we interact and respond to social issues expose our theological beliefs, our spiritual values, and our understanding of biblical and social justice.

The biblical prophets knew that, of course. Each one of them rooted their ministry contextually on the social, political, and economic realities of their day and the spiritual development of their people. It was a given. . . . Social realities and spiritual development were understood as interconnected. If climate change had been presented to them as a pressing issue affecting all aspects of creation, you better believe they would have addressed it from a faith perspective.

But like us, those biblical prophets and the people they served easily became weary and exhausted—when change was slow or failed to arrive—especially when power holders turned a deaf ear, when the path became rocky, painful, and took sharp, unexpected turns.

That was certainly true during the Babylonian Exile, in the 6th Century BCE. That’s 2600 years ago. It’s hard to imagine what life would have been like 2600 years ago. But what we do know is that the Babylonians invaded and defeated the nation of Israel in the land of Palestine. Nebuchadrezzar II, the greatest king of the Chaldean dynasty of Babylonia, destroyed Israel’s great Temple, plundered its wealth and resources, took the people into bondage, and marched them into Babylon in chains, where they remained for 70 years. Many of the laments of the Psalms recall this heart-wrenching event. The Babylonian victory over Israel was absolute; it completely devastated the political, social, economic and religious life Israel had known for centuries.

It is probably impossible for us to imagine this kind of devastation, humiliation, and destruction. Many of the people in exile felt completely abandoned, wondering where was God? Were they still God’s people? Was God still God?

And into this angst, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, reminding the people who God is and how God works, drawing their attention beyond this particular, historical moment and into the larger purposes of God. . . . I imagine a camera lens slowly zooming out from a close-up shot to a wide-angle, cosmic view. There is more to this picture. There is more that we are called to be about. . . . God is the God not only of Israel—not only of Babylon—but God is the one who creates the heavens, universes, black holes, and spreads out the earth in all directions and all that comes from it, who gives breath to all people and all creatures, who fills all those in the world with spirit. This is the God of all Creation, who dwells throughout the wide, open, cosmos. This God is not bound by exile, and yet does have a very particular love for individual people, particularly those in pain.

Isaiah extends God’s lifeline of consolation. . . . He extolls God’s promise and God’s hope, even in the bleakest of times, when all hope seems hidden. . . . Even when there are forces active in the world that would ask us to kowtow to abusive demonstrations of power, expect us to relinquish our values and principles of faith out of fear, encourage us to turn a blind eye to injustices because they tell us we are too helpless to change them. Isaiah assures us, faithful resistance can make a difference. Isaiah declares that God is appointing Peace as our Overseer.

But who is this Overseer Named Peace?! Referenced again and again, bringing justice and love—not domination and tyranny—throughout the world, for all nations, for all people. . . . There are all kinds of speculation, academic hypotheses. . . . But I think in reminding God’s people that God is still—and is always—with them, at work among them, constantly and continually restoring them and creating them to be blessings to others, Isaiah is calling each and every one of us out to be that Overseer Named Peace. We are the ones called faithfully to resist wherever the poor are not offered good news, wherever the captives are not offered release, wherever the blind are not offered their sight, wherever the oppressed are not offered their freedom. Resistance in the face of tyranny is the most faithful thing I can imagine. And MLK believed that. Jesus believed that. And Isaiah believed that. We are called to be that Overseer Named Peace, rooted solidly in our faith and moral authority, pointing boldly to life-giving, life-affirming possibilities for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world.

And like many of the servants and prophets who have gone before us teach us: there will be those who do not want to hear what we have to say, who do not want to see the work that we do, but we must say it and we must do it anyway. We will experience times of frustration and exhaustion, when the road seems too long, and we’re not sure we’re getting anywhere. But we must keep walking that road anyway.

The deepest work of faith lies in making connections—however tiring it may be, however long it may take. Those of you who have been involved in Common Ground and any kind of community organizing—especially—know what I am talking about. . . . Change is hard. And doing the spiritual work of social justice is exhausting, tiring work. It does not move fast or particularly smoothly, and there is nothing to guarantee our success. But it is spiritually necessary work. It is the only way to strive toward lasting change.

And I hear from many of you—you inspire me—you seem to remember and know even when I forget: “We don’t have to do the work all by ourselves. We have to remember that. The power of God is amazing!”

And you’re right—although I sometimes fall into this trap—especially when it comes to changing social systems and structures—we can’t get stuck feeling like we have to set everything right all by ourselves—that God’s presence is all very nice, but all the heavy lifting really falls on us. That completely discounts God. And while I do believe we are the hands and feet and eyes and heart of God active in the world, I also believe that we are not acting alone. We cannot leave God out of the equation! Our prayers matter. Our faith matters. God’s abiding presence matters. That’s how the ancient prophets—like Isaiah—kept going. . . . They opened themselves up and allowed God to renew their strength!

We have to remember that the One who calls us to magnify freedom and justice throughout the world is the God who created the earth, who calls out the stars, whose strength knows no limits. The One who calls us and sends us out into a world of great need is also the God who gives strength to the powerless and words to the silenced. God commissioned the life-giving work of the prophet Isaiah, as well as the profound and inspiring work of Martin Luther King, Jr. And God continues to call to us and commission us today. To bring forth light and justice to ALL the nations, to connect social justice with our own spiritual development, and to live in faithful resistance to anything that asks us to sacrifice our deepest value and belief in God’s universal and lavish love. May we live our lives in ways worthy of this calling. . . .