The EmbRACE Study / 03

We're at this again?

It's just after Thanksgiving -- and not a "normal" one at that. I must confess that the thought of having to engage in another race study... now... sounds... well... it doesn't fill me with excitement. My finger to the pulse of our church and immediate community is that we're tired of the subject, the outrage that once saturated our social feeds has reduced from a raging fire to a simmer (but I must add, still present nonetheless). But we expected this.

When we, the pastoral staff, started mapping out how to help our church engage with the issues of justice in our day, we decided to "slow drip" our engagement with the issues for several reasons. One reason was our assessment that our church has many diverse perspectives on the issues, and it will take us some time to process and absorb. Many of us have histories and stories of our own (or stories inherited through our parents) which color our view. It would take some time to get to distill our experiences and stories to discern the gospel call in this particular moment -- we're still working through this as a community call together in love and harmony (Ephesians 4 and Romans 12).

we must continue to pursue righteousness and justice long after our social feeds moved onto other subjects

But one other reason was that we knew that these issues would not be resolved quickly. We knew that the wide public outrage could not be kept at a fever pitch, and eventually, we must continue to pursue righteousness and justice long after our social feeds moved onto other subjects. For many of us (though I recognize, not all), we can choose not to talk about injustice because we do not deal with it every day. But that may not be an option for many of our friends and neighbors -- people we are called to love and care for. This does not mean we ignore our own troubles, but we're called to follow in Christ's footsteps and extend ourselves for others around us.

The missing lament

For this third EmbRACE study, we'll be focusing on lament. As we enter the Advent season this Sunday, it is fitting that we enter into this lost (at least in the vast majority of the American church) spiritual discipline. The Advent season is not synonymous with what many of us call the "Christmas season" (jolly hot chocolates and cozy fireplaces); it is a season marked by longing. In the season of Advent we are to name the brokenness in our lives that require a Savior. Lament requires us to go deeper in our call to "love our neighbors as ourselves" by naming and entering into that pain to better see our hope. Sometimes, when we are faced with problems, we immediately look for solutions rather than taking the time to dig deep into the problems that plague us as a people. Lament requires us to restrain our assumptions about we [think we] know about the pain of our neighbors and enter into that pain. When Jesus entered into the company of mourners at Lazarus's grave (see John 11) he did not first offer the "solution" to their sadness (namely, himself). Rather, the scriptures tell us that he wept, he sobbed, he bawled. With this upcoming study, the challenge before us is to identify with those in pain.

Does the brokenness of this world break your heart and deepen your longing for Christ in this Advent season? As you join your CGs in this next EmbRACE study, I encourage you resist the urge to bypass the sadness and ugliness of our world in order to get to the "solutions" to our condition. Rather dig deep into the brokenness around us and let that orient our hearts to the coming King who comes to save.

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox
    that the way down is the way up,
    that to be low is to be high,
    that the broken heart is the healed heart,
    that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
    that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
    that to have nothing is to possess all,
    that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
    that to give is to receive,
    that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
    and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness,
    thy life in my death,
    thy joy in my sorrow,
    thy grace in my sin,
    thy riches in my poverty
    thy glory in my valley.
The Valley of Vision
The Valley of Vision, A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions

Knowledge of Self

"At exactly which point do you start to realize
That life without knowledge is death in disguise?
That's why, knowledge of self is like life after death
Apply it, to your life, let destiny manifest!"
Black Star

Hip hop embraced the phrase “knowledge of self” as a call for people to be conscious of their inner thoughts and also of the outer forces influencing them. It was a call to recognize one’s dignity, intellect, emotions, ethnicity, genealogy, and history, as well as the surrounding social structures shaping one’s reality. “Knowledge of self” is what drove Brooklyn rapper AZ to proclaim things like, “You can try to blind me, analyze, but can't define me / My mind's divine, heavily entwined with Gandhi's.” In these lines, the rapper has an awareness of the layers of his own mind and of the confines of his broken society.

But what does all this have to do with us right now? New York is still considered to be one of the most influential cities in the world. Its culture can be fast-paced, cutthroat, and powerfully innovative. But during this year’s pandemic, even New York City had to slow down and pause, making it an extremely difficult season for many of us. And as we trudged through 2020, there has been a steady exposure of our deepest emotions and sins, as well as the grotesque unearthing of our society’s moral corruptions.

While I am not trying to diminish this year's suffering, I also hope we do not overlook that this year has offered us an opportunity for unprecedented knowledge of self, both individually and as a collective. It is possible to “just get through” Covid times, looking forward to the next time we can be at our “full potential” again. And it is possible, even after the pandemic, to live our lives focused solely on productivity, pleasure, parties, and pay, until the day we die. But, as writer C.S. Lewis says, insofar as we want to experience “real warmth and enthusiasm and joy” and healing, we will have to do more than surface-level living. Hip hop is beauty that emerged from trying times in marginalized neighborhoods, where artists decided to become more reflective in the midst of trial.

Knowledge of Grace

Sixteenth century French theologian John Calvin did not know about rap philosophy, but he spoke a similar truth. He said, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

Christian knowledge of self first involves recognizing the patterns of our spiritual behavior and trying to explore why the patterns are there. You can see examples in Scripture, like Paul’s wrestling in Romans 7:21-25, Job’s monologues, and David in places like Psalm 43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” Knowledge of self is the hard and repetitive work of peeling back our insecurities. We ask ourselves, 'Is there something (control, beauty, companionship, power, career, reputation) in my life that grasps me so strongly that if that thing is threatened, I would feel less confident, and even less worthy? Why do I obsess over things the way I do? Whose voice is most powerful in my life? How has my community influenced me; how have I influenced my community?' These are lifelong questions and journeys, not solved overnight.

But then, of course, we cannot forget the second part of Calvin’s statement: the knowledge of God. The knowledge of self journey leads to the knowledge of God. This was the natural path for all the scriptural examples listed above. Knowing the depth of our sins and insecurities leads us to glimpse how profound God’s grace is for us. It leads us to find God’s mercy waiting for us, even in the darkest depths of our souls. We find the power of Christ fighting for us, even against things we cannot control, like our family histories and environments. And all of this can move us to worship.

Family, finding God in our individual and communal vulnerabilities is among the most healing experiences we can have, over time. Resting on God’s grace allows us the freedom to finally admit our weaknesses but at the same time be confident in the gifts he provides. There is freedom in not having to sustain false confidences to cover our weaknesses but also freedom in emboldening ourselves as people, forgiven and gifted by God, going out into the world, as his workmanship (Ephesians 2:1-10).

Sufferer, Sinner, Saint, Story

As I am writing this, I am wearing a t-shirt that says, “Jazz is freedom.” Sometimes, jazz music does not have a set beat or key signature; it just sounds like random notes. But in the randomness, there is complexity, and in that, there is freedom too. Often, we want to assign ourselves and others into rigid categories of this or that; it is easier to "figure each other out" superficially than to learn our stories. But the truth is, as Christians, we are all a complex composition of saint, sinner, and sufferer, all at once. It is in living through this tension that we meet God, conforming us, and all his creation, to the image of his Son.

Would you be willing at all to explore those messy details of being human? Is this something you would like to pursue, for change, both in yourself and beyond? If so, find somebody in your life who can help you to ask good questions in this journey of deep knowledge. And most of all, let us ask the Lord God to guide us in our reflections, one day at a time. Pray through Psalm 139, in which David sings,

O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways (Psalm 139:1-3).

Fighting to be Still

Pastor Rob gave us a very good word to consider this past Sunday from Psalm 146 in anticipation of this week and all the anxiety many of us may be experiencing regarding the election. Yes, as citizens and members of society, we are called to "submit our ballots," yet, as believers, we are not called to "submit our hopes." Still I find it difficult to completely detach myself from this contentious election race. I've focused my attention to some books. I've played several games of AmongUs. I've joined some fellow anxious saints in prayer. I've been running around trying to distract myself with anything to not see the live updates. And I was convicted in my busyness to slow down.

Psalm 46 ends with the familiar line, "Be still and know that I am God." If you're feeling anything like me today, I encourage you to stop where you are and take a solid few minutes to read and let this psalm get into the core of your being today.

Psalm 46

To the choirmaster. Of the Sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A Song.

    God is our refuge and strength,
        a very present help in trouble.
    Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
        though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
    though its waters roar and foam,
        though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
    There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
        the holy habitation of the Most High.
    God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
        God will help her when morning dawns.
    The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
        he utters his voice, the earth melts.
    The LORD of hosts is with us;
        the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
    Come, behold the works of the LORD,
        how he has brought desolations on the earth.
    He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
        he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
        he burns the chariots with fire.
    “Be still, and know that I am God.
        I will be exalted among the nations,
        I will be exalted in the earth!”
    The LORD of hosts is with us;
        the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

This psalm describes the raging nations of today so well. We make all this noise, and somehow distract ourselves into thinking and believing that this -- this -- moment is the ultimate moment. But this psalm lays down the truth that it's not; the LORD merely utters his voice and everything melts.

The lead up to the familiar "Be still..." line shows a God who brings desolations on the earth. He allows our nonsense to ensue until all is dust. Perhaps only when we let the chaos and restlessness in our hearts stop, can we finally recognize who is God. God is found in the stillness. And we need to fight the noise of today to seek that stillness. Slow down. Slow down so you can keep pace with God. Slow down so you can hear his voice. Slow down so we can discern his leading in this tumultuous time.