Friday, March 21, 2008

God Is Not Here

Meditation on the Fourth Word from the Cross
Good Friday 2008

A woman lies in a hospital bed in Philadelphia, even as we speak, finally being consumed by the cancer she has fought for two years. She is in the hospice ward where they struggle to manage her pain. She has been given days, if not hours, to live. She is only 29 years old.


A family lives on the banks of a small river in central Colombia, cultivating a small plot of land. One day, a heavily armed group comes and demands food from them. Of course, they surrender it. The next day, another heavily armed group comes and accuses them of collaborating with the first group. They turn over more resources to demonstrate their allegiance. In the end, they are forced to flee or be destroyed.


Contrary to popular opinion, the primary theological question is not “does God exist?” No, the primary theological question is “where is God in the midst of all of this?” Certainly, the latter question implies the former, since locating anything requires a thing to be located. But the latter question demands more. It demands relationship. It demands accountability. It demands context. “Where is God in the midst of all of this?”

How are we to answer this question in the midst of personal and structural tragedy? To be sure, we must answer honestly. Our answer must reflect our vulnerability and our openness, our pain and our loneliness. It must be both legitimate and authentic.

To give voice to such an answer is risky. Risky first because such an answer will likely be unacceptable to friends, family, colleagues; it may even appear blasphemous or heretical. Risky second because our answer means admitting to ourselves our pain and vulnerability and so deepening and ingraining them.

“Where is God in the midst of all of this?” Our answer, arising out of the depths of the human condition, in all of its honesty and authenticity, must be that God is not here.


But wait, what happened to that gospel of grace and freedom? It is true that grace is God’s response to sin and fallenness and that freedom is God’s response to oppression and fear. We celebrate these gifts no more extravagantly than on Easter Sunday when they are bound together in the reality of resurrection.

But that is Easter Sunday. Today is Good Friday. From the cross, Jesus asked, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” The question is both accusation and call to account. It is not new on either score; those who regularly read the psalms or the prophets are apt to recognize it. God is not here. Why?

There is plenty of time, three days in fact, for God to answer. But those three days are important. It is important to acknowledge and feel pain, loss and vulnerability. It is important to sit with our woundedness and not move on from it too quickly. It is important to hear the resonance of our authentic, legitimate and honest answer; God is not here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Tahlequah Day 5

We woke up in the morning to discover that the supposedly purple dye actually left everyone's hair pink. Such is life.

Our first event of the day was rafting down the Illinois River. What started as a rather uneventful trip ended up quite interesting when about half way down the river we encountered a tree that had fallen across the river. Each of the three rafts took a different approach to getting past it. One portaged their raft around the tree. Another got over at a place where about an inch of water was running over the trunk. My raft got out, stood on the trunk, lifted the boat over the trunk, and piled back in. We reported the fallen tree when we got back to the raft rental and they sent some people out to clear it.

We went back to the community center in Four Corners to change and then went to lunch at Katfish Kitchen. Everyone was amazed at how much food was available. The people there were very friendly and happy to have a large group at lunch time. The hushpuppies were a particular favorite along with large glasses of sweet tea.

After lunch we headed to the Cherokee Nation Courthouse to talk with the Assistant District Attorney and some others about legal issues the Cherokee face. The three biggest issues involve land, substance abuse, and membership. The land issue revolves around the fact that while Cherokee were guaranteed 110 acres of land when they moved to Oklahoma from Georgia and so some people have land scattered about at great distances. Substance abuse includes alcohol, marijuana and crystal meth. It is especially problematic amongst young people. The good news is that the Cherokee are finding effective ways of addressing these issues out of their cultural heritage.

The issue of membership in Cherokee Nation is especially prominent at the moment. There is a CA congresswoman who is attempting to take federal funds from Cherokee Nation because they are not including freedmen, slaves who were freed by the Cherokee during the Civil War before the US freed its slaves, on the grounds that they do not have Cherokee blood. The Cherokee feel that they have been grossly misrepresented in the press on this issue and are deeply concerned to preserve one of the only rights left to the Cherokee as a people, the right to self-determination.

Next we visited the Cherokee Heritage Center where they have a full scale Cherokee villiage set up as it would have been during the 15th century prior to Columbus getting lost on his way to India. As part of the tour we were shown how to use a blow gun. I was asked to demonstrate. I missed, but only just! Then we were shown how to play stick ball. This is a really interesting game because it was how the tribes resolved conflicts without going to war. The idea is that the winner of the game probably would have won the war anyway! The game is played by taking two sticks with baskets on each end and using them to hurl a small stone at a plaque hoisted about four stories up in the air on the end of a pole. There is a really interesting catch to this game though. Men, women and children all play, but only men get sticks. Women get to use their hands to throw the ball. Women also get to hit, kick, scratch and bite the men, but the men cannot strike the women. I was asked to try to hit the fish using the sticks to throw the stone. I missed. By a long shot. And I didn't even have a hundred other people trying to stop me! It's a fantastic model for resolving conflict. Wouldn't the world be a much more peaceful place if the Olympics determined disputes as opposed to going to war?

After stopping at the gift shop, we went to do our last bit of service for a woman named Lisa who is disabled. We cleaned up her yard and washed down the front of her house, which was quite a mess but was the off-white color it was supposed to be when we finished.

When we got back to Four Corners, we made and ate dinner and then spent a long time debriefing the week. There was general agreement that we have formed long-lasting friendships. I am deeply grateful to the ASB-Tahlequah team for letting me be a part of their week, both the service and the fellowship.

On the van-ride back to Boston, we stopped for breakfast on Sunday morning in Seneca Falls. My dear friend, mentor and colleague Allison hosted us at the Women's Interfaith Institute. As the team ate, Allison gave a brief overview of the history of Seneca Falls, womens' rights, and the work of her institute. The team was very receptive and glad to see some of the historic landmarks in Seneca Falls. I am extremely happy that my connection with Allison allowed this to come about.

Apologies for this last post being so late. On Monday night, the day after we returned, I came down with the flu and am just today returning to something resembling normal life. I also have sun burns and poison ivy to show for our efforts on the trip. Nevertheless, pictures are forthcoming in the next few days. In the mean time, have a blessed Triduum and a happy Easter.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Tahlequah Day 4

Mary had asked us to meet her at her office at 9:30AM to receive our marching orders for the day. This would require leaving no later than 9AM. Given that our last ASBer didn't get out of her sleeping bag until 8:40AM, we didn't actually leave until 9:10. That was okay as we arrived and things were not as well planned as we had hoped.

Thankfully, Warren and Sam jumped in and helped us partner with the University of Miami trip in the morning. We drove about a half hour outside of Tahlequah to a project that Cherokee Nation was developing a series of cabins for groups like ours as well as retreats to use free of charge. Our project was cleaning up a bit and helping get the water line laid. We set to work with shovels and rakes and made fairly short work of getting a lot of small stones cleared out of a roadway and getting a lot of leaves raked up to be burned. After lunch we got the soft dirt to cover the water line so that it would not be broken by large rocks when the backhoe came along and filled in the ditch completely.

Warren came up with another project for us in the afternoon. We left Sam with the University of Miami group and headed back into Tahlequah where we worked in a school that Cherokee Nation had bought and converted into a charity distribution center for clothes and household items. We got one room full of stuff sorted out, a number of clothes into gender and size order, and about fifty bags of bedding and curtains folded and sorted. It was a thoroughly rewarding sight to see it all completed.

Tyson, who had invited us to work on the project, also had another project for us the next morning. He wanted us to head over near Tulsa to help him unload some lumber and sheet rock. The group was divided as to whether we wanted to do it or not, given that Friday morning was scheduled for rafting down the river. The group discussed it and worked together with Tyson to find some kind of workable compromise. The initial decision was to do the project early in the morning and then go rafting later in the morning. By evening, that had changed and we finally decided to skip the unloading in favor of a potential project helping an elderly woman clear her yard later in the day.

We went and had pizza at the Pizza Hut in Pryor, OK, thanks to the generosity of Maria from the Zoo Safari on Monday. Maria, John and August have been truly gracious to us while we've been here and we are deeply grateful to them. We also highly recommend visiting Zoo Safari if ever your are in the Tahlequah region.

After dinner we headed back to Four Corners so that the girls could spend the evening streaking their hair purple. I served as photographer for the occasion. I was strongly encouraged to get a streak or two in my hair, or maybe do my beard, but I refused. Of course, purple is the appropriate liturgical color for Lent... but no.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tahlequah Day 3

Wednesday morning involved getting up just in time for Warren to arrive and inform us that our primary contact, Sue, was very sick and so he would be organizing our day along with Mary, his counterpart at Cherokee Nation. I had just finished toasting the bagels in the oven (the first batch got a little crispy) and suddenly everyone scrambled to get ready and out the door as quickly as possible.

Our first stop was the Cherokee Nation administrative building in Tahlequah proper. We got a tour during which we learned about how the Cherokee government operates and the services they provide. One of the things they do is to run a Cherokee language immersion school. They have developed the curriculum through grade 2 at this point and plan to go all the way through high school. As we were leaving, the chief came by and spoke with us briefly and took a picture with us.

We had lunch at a small park along the lake. It was a beautiful day with sunshine and clear blue skies. After another round of picture taking, we headed to Marble City to spend the afternoon with the community there and the group from the University of Miami that was doing an Alternative Spring Break trip like ours. We learned to play Cherokee marbles, which is more like bocce balls than what I would have thought of as marbles. Then we played with a group of local children; duck-duck-goose was the favorite. We ate dinner with the community; Cherokee tacos with a base of fried dough and piled with beans, lettuce, tomato, onion, salsa and cheese.

We had been invited after dinner to join the community for a service at the church where the day's activities were taking place. It is a pentecostal church and I was very much aware that several of our members are Jewish. I spoke briefly with the trip coordinators about what the service might be like and suggested we gather the group to discuss it and how we wanted to participate. Several members of the group expressed discomfort at the idea of participating. Others thought it would be a good thing to at least observe. As the group conversed, the idea emerged to stay for the beginning part of the service, when the children would sing and then a band would play, to say "thank you" to the community for having us, and then to head home. Even in these initial stages of the service, the pastor was very involved, offering a number of prayers and speaking about Jesus as the only way to salvation, both in this world and the next. The children sang "Amazing Grace" in Cherokee and then performed several praise and worship songs in American Sign Language. The band was actually quite good, especially the guitarist.

It was notable on the hour+ ride home that no one even mentioned turning on the radio. We spent the entire ride unpacking the trip. There were a lot of questions about what we had experienced together, and several expressions of discomfort. There were also many expressions if intrigue and curiosity about this expression of religious fervor. Throughout the ride, I was asked many clarifying questions and then to give an account of all of church history! It was good to see the group unpack the experience together and to move deeper in relationship to one another out of the confusion brought on by this encounter. I was glad to be a part of it and to be able to be helpful. I am also very much aware that not every one of the 2 trips BU sends each year has a chaplain on it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tahlequah Day 2

We woke up very cold on Tuesday morning. The heat had gone out over the night (ran out of gas) and it was below 50 degrees when we crawled out of our sleeping bags. Once everyone finally got up, the cold did have the side effect of encouraging people to display some alacrity in getting out the door.

We arrived at the site for the day and were warm within minutes. At the Downing Cemetery, we hauled brush and logs into piles to be burned and generally got the place cleaned up. Between the hauling and the burning, we were all quite toasty after an hour of work. By the end of they day, many of us (myself included) were a bit sunburned. As we sat amongst the gravestones, listening to John tell us about his family history who were buried there, I could feel the sun sinking into my already burned shoulders. By night, I was quite sore; from the burns as well as the scrapes from the pricker bushes.

We got back to the community center and had some down time before dinner and then heading into town for bowling. Unfortunately, neither the first nor the second set of directions we had were correct. We called the bowling alley and they gave us some rather uninterpretable directions ("We're just past the Walmart, but not really past the Walmart") so it required three more phone calls to finally triangulate our way there. The bowling was great fun, and everyone improved greatly in their technique, especially those we discovered toward the end of the first game were holding the ball wrong!

Bowling was followed by a trip to the store to stock up on a few missing essentials (milk!) and then an apparently obligatory stop by Sonic for shakes and snacks. This was especially fun pulling up to a drive-in fast food restaurant and having to order for 13 people! Great hilarity ensued.

It was an excellent day, and our reflection at the end of the day demonstrated this. We all turned in about 12:45 and are starting to get up and get ready for another day of service!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Tahlequah Day 1

12 first-year and sophomore women and one monk. This should be interesting.

We left at 7AM on Saturday, March 8th and drove for 36 hours straight from Boston to Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Several interesting incidents marked the drive down. First, one person got sick while I was driving. I heard from the back, "someone threw up! Pull over!" Everything was fine after we got her re-hydrated. Then another person started talking in her sleep. She sat straight up and insisted that we pull over, immediately! Then nothing else she said made sense and we realized that she was talking in her sleep so we continued on. The most interesting event was getting pulled over by an overzealous Tennessee State Trooper. He got all bent out of shape because one of most conscientious drivers had gone past him in the right lane when he had pulled over a truck, instead of moving to the left lane. He gave us a lecture and let us go. Since when is asking a full 15 passenger van to change lanes unnecessarily a good idea?

We finally arrived, bought groceries for the week, and got to the community center where we are staying. We had dinner, some people took showers, and we went to bed.

This morning we woke up and headed out to our first service site. We were helping Rev. Fred, a 90 year old pastor, clear some brush and broken trees that had come down in an ice storm. Sam, from Cherokee Nation, came along with his chain saw to cut up the branches. In the middle of it, Sam found a big piece that would make a great three-legged table. He sawed a flat piece off the top and loaded in his truck as a project for us throughout the week. Many of our number are animal lovers and so Rev. Fred's dogs and cats provided great joy and amusement. This afternoon we are going to a local animal park to clear more brush and check out the goats.

The group is really bonding well and learning to work together. It's great being able to just be along for the ride. Liz and Giovanna have things so well planned that there's really nothing for me to do. Which is great! I love being able to defer all the questions from the people we work with to them. I think it surprises some to learn that these college students really have things well in hand. Go BU!