Thursday, December 4, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson, Staten Island, and Police Brutality from an Officer's Child

When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I assumed that something must have happened to cause Officer Wilson to use lethal force. I knew what it would take for the law enforcement officers I knew to pull a trigger. They would have to be in danger of losing their lives. Now I am not so sure what happened in Ferguson. I don't know how a police officer telling two young men not to jay walk turned into deadly use of force. The documents don't make sense to me. Something is not right.

Then Eric Garner was choked to death by an officer in Staten Island, and I don't know how that happened either.  I don't get it. That should never have happened. If the police were arresting him, then all they needed was to put handcuffs on, and if he was resistant, there are ways to get him into the back of a patrol car that don't result in death.

I have been listening a lot to my black colleagues and classmates recently.  Listening, but not saying much, because it's hard for me to take it all in.  It's hard to figure it out.  It's not the picture I have in my mind of the police force and I grieve what I am hearing and learning from my colleagues.

My father was a police officer in small towns for years. When I think of a white police officer, I naturally think of Dad coming home at the end of the day in his uniform.  When I was 10, he became a probation/parole officer at a men's residential facility, and he proudly talks about helping men to examine their lives, to take actions to avoid years in prison and to live successful lives. When he runs into former clients, he is usually greeted with a smile and a handshake.

I have grown up for years hearing stories about Dad's law enforcement friends, people like the officer who refused to put tickets on the cars left in front of the bars at night because he wasn't going to penalize people recognized that they couldn't drive and found other ways home.

Recently I married a former police officer, and he boasts of how he had the lowest use of force rate while he was on the force. He always tried to talk to people and did everything he could to resolve situations without using force.

These are my images of the police force, and these are the images that I want to be the norm for every person residing in the United States. Sadly, more and more I am learning that my image is not the norm, especially for people of color, and that is not okay with me. I don't want people to be afraid of the police, I don't want to see them as enemies or as brutal people, I want them to see people like my father and my husband and the thousands of other wonderful people who are and have been law enforcement agents in the United States.

To change the image, we need justice. We need people standing up and saying this is not okay.   It is not okay to shoot a man for questionable reasons and leave his body laying in the street for four hours. It is not okay to choke a man until he dies.  It is not okay to let the questionable and corrupt actions of some law enforcement officers slide. Not only do these actions deny the value of the lives of black people, but these officers are not living out their duty to protect and serve the people in their communities.  It is not okay for them to get away with not doing their job. We cannot let that slide.

My father is currently on the Citizens' Police Review Board in his community. It is a group of citizens assigned to examine complaints against police officers in their community and to make recommendations about what actions should be taken. It is a way that the community can hold the police force accountable.  Though the board has no direct say on what happens to police officers who fail to protect and serve, they can be a voice against corruption. I want a Citizen's Police Review Board in every city across the United States. I want the board's demographics to reflect those of the community the board represents, and I want their voices to matter when it comes to reprimanding officers or taking cases against them to trial.

Perhaps it is also time to ensure that those who examine cases brought against police officers are not connected to the police department or the community those officers serve. We need impartial people reviewing the actions of police officers and deciding what actions need to be taken. The grand jury system doesn't appear to be working, and we perhaps need a different way of reviewing cases against our law enforcement officials.

Most importantly though, we need to connect the police force back to the community. We need to focus on training officers who can not only enforce the law, but also serve the people. I want law enforcement officers on the streets who genuinely care about the people they protect.
Ideally, they should be from the community itself and reflect the community's demographics.

I don't want to live in a world where people put up their hands in a gesture to say "Don't shoot".  I don't want to live in a country where people of color are afraid of the police.  I want a police force like the one I learned about growing up. I want men and women who are passionate about protecting and serving their communities patrolling the streets and I want officers who use force in inappropriate ways to be reprimanded accordingly. I want communities to be invested in their officers and officers invested in their communities.

This is not a lofty goal, but it takes commitment. We have to take seriously the critiques of persons of color against police officers and train our police force so they can serve all the people in their communities, not just the ones that look like them. We have to take seriously the actions of officers who use their force in inappropriate ways, especially when their use of force results in death.  We cannot stand for corruption within our police force and law enforcement system.  We have to commit to improving it. I want the primary image of a police officer in every community to be that of every wonderful and dedicated officer who puts their life on the line to protect and serve their community. I want them to imagine people like my husband and my dad.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Why do we go to church?

For the past several months, if not years, I have been musing over the question, "Why do we go to church?" It seems like a straightforward answer  and many would affirm that one goes to church to learn about and worship God. But if that is all church is about, then if one reads from the Bible, says their prayers, reads books on the subject, and has access to any number of resources online, why do we still get together in buildings? What is the point of gathering for worship?
My first inclination was to say that it is for the sacraments.  Indeed, I do not think I would be half the person I am if I didn't get some extra Jesus in my life through the Eucharist.  It slowly but surely helps me to become a little more like Jesus, week after week, wafer after wafer.  Jesus physically enters into the body and nourishes it. He transforms the physical body as well as the soul. There is nothing more awe inspiring to me than that.  Surely the sacraments must be why we go to church.
But then I look at the vast majority of protestant churches, with a variety of beliefs about the sacraments and a variety of time tables for when they receive them.  How can I say going to church is all about the sacraments when there are so many churches don't receive the Eucharist on a weekly basis or have different theologies about it? And what about the Quakers? They do not take physical sacraments at all, but rather experience spiritual baptism and communion.  What is the reason that all these groups continue to gather every week?
So I went back to the drawing board and I decided that it must be about community. This is why the church gathers, to be a community that can shape each other as everyone works to better understand who God is and how God is working in their lives.  It is all about learning from one another and growing with each other.  Indeed, if an individual tries to understand God on their own, there is a great likelihood that the god they worship will end up being their own ideas and interpretations.  How do they know if their ideas are valid unless they are challenged and molded by the others around them? But then what is to stop an entire church community from making their own false idols?  How easily do some churches become cults of a pastor's personality? Indeed, a church community is always in some way shaped by the personality of the person in charge. There is no getting around that fact. So how does being a part of a congregation help a person with their faith if their faith could potentially be led astray by the person in charge?
So I mulled about this for a while, knowing that what I felt about the sacraments was true and what I felt about community was true, but having trouble connecting the dots.
I also began to muse about why I went to chapel services at my seminary. To be honest, the mish-mash of traditions drives me a little batty. So do I go for my own spiritual edification? Yes and no.  Whether or not the preacher interests me or whether I think the service will be good hardly factors into why my butt is in the pew.  Is it some sense of duty? Kind of.  I left for a while and came back because I felt that it was important as the president of a student organization to be there. But if that were the only thing, I wouldn't feel a deeper need to be there. There was something else driving me besides my own sense of student leadership. And I could easily not go. A lot of people don't. That's not a judgment on anyone, I understand many of the reasons why people don't go and I don't go all the time. But more often than not, my butt is in that pew.
And that is where I found a piece of the answer that I was looking for.  I show up not because I think chapel will be terrific. I show up because you never know when Christ is going to come and say something important. Sometimes there's nothing of note that happens. I come, I do the worship routine, I leave. But sometimes something really unexpected happens. A song grabs me, a scripture startles me, or a sermon really gets me. Christ comes when I'm not really expecting Him. Christ can come at any moment.  And sometimes it's not even anything in the service order itself that strikes me. Sometimes it's the people around me. It's amazing to me how putting my butt in a pew has allowed me to meet more of my fellow students than I could have ever met in the halls. As we share together before services, we are able to connect in sometimes unexpected ways.
Finally I was able to piece together what it meant to go to church. A church service often contains all we need to better hear the call of Christ for our days and our lives. Sometimes Christ is felt in songs or scripture or sermon. Sometimes Christ is felt most in fellowship and feast. But Christ is always there. Indeed God is present in every element in our lives.  And it's not that we have to gather communally to worship, but when we do, when we come as God's People to hear God's Word, we can be changed. There is transformation power in community. There is resurrection power in the Word.  Sometimes the community doesn't always align perfectly with the Word.  It is resistant to where God is calling it, its doctrines don't always mesh up, but still it seeks. And when the Body of Christ sinks into the People of God and claims it as its own, things happen. Communities change. People are not the same. The Kingdom enters our kingdoms.
So why do we gather together? Why do we go to church? Because we believe that the Word of God can change lives. We believe that Christ can come into hearts at any given moment, and this isn't just a one time thing, but a continual thing, shaping people into the Body of Christ. And when the Body of Christ comes together and seeks God together, the Kingdom of God can enter the world. It may be only glimpses or foretastes, but those moments energize us and revitalize us for the work that will lead to the Kingdom truly inhabiting our planet. We come because we believe Christ can and does change the world.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Leaving Cape Town

My roommates have left, the apartment is empty, and I am cleaning up, preparing to turn over the keys and get on a plane tonight.  There has not been a single day when I was not homesick, when I did not long for my home with my fiance. And I am so excited to go back to him, to go back to our home and to our friends, and to our life together.

But this trip has been good for me. Besides being able to experience all the beauty around Cape Town, I have gotten to work with people I would not have considered partnering with before. I knew that I was going to learn about the religious experiences of sex workers, but I had no idea that I would be sharing office space with people who work in the office by day and sell sex at night. I have met many sex workers and played with their children. I have seen what it means for someone to be an impoverished transgender woman, but I've also seen their souls dance as they come together for support. I've learned about the struggles many people have on the street, and about the struggles people have in the townships. If one lives in either place, it is sometimes hard to keep dry. And in a cold winter when nobody has centrally heated homes, the wetter you are, the worse it gets. I've heard people talk about doing drugs just so they don't feel the cold and the wet at night.

I've also studied a lot and thought a lot about the church's theology of sex, and what it means to hold the idea that sex is something special and sacred, but also what it means when sex is a way to provide for yourself and your family. What does it mean to commodify sex? But then what also does it mean that economically, it is hard for many who come from poverty to leave poverty? What does it mean that unemployment rates nationwide in South Africa are high. What does it mean to have to support yourself and this job pays well when one gets enough clients?

But the most important thing I've learned is that Christ is not confined to those society would like to label as "decent". Christ sometimes shows up in the weirdest of places, like an organization that supports sex workers. They challenged my idea of who a Christian can be. I learned about experiences of growing up and moving away from the church, but I also learned about some who are faithful, who sit in that pew every Sunday, who pray and read their Bible, who have an active relationship with God, yet are also providing for themselves and their families through sex work. They made me wonder, who can a Christian be?

The complexity of Christianity is when we begin to see that others whom we would rather ignore or push out have the Holy Spirit in them too. Then we have to experience Christ in a new way, as active in the lives of those we would prefer he not work in. We must ask what being Christian means, what salvation means, what it actually looks like, and whether someone can be both saved and sinner, poor yet rich in heaven. It's complex. It's challenging. We have been struggling with it for over 2000 years.

And so as I get ready to leave South Africa, I think about them and I am grateful to have met them. I was homesick every day, I can't wait to go home, but this trip was good. These people are worth knowing, worth leaving my home and going halfway around the world to meet.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Cape Town Sex Workers and Christ

I still don't quite know how I ended up doing an internship with a sex worker advocacy organization called SWEAT in Cape Town, South Africa. Something called me to be here, and I think it was more than just being able to experience a South African winter instead of the heat of the American summer. I guess I wanted to learn from other's experiences, to sit and talk with those society is so quick to reject. I wanted to work with the oppressed, like Jesus did.
So far I've spent a week learning about the lives of sex workers, meeting them, and observing the programs they have put together to support each other. I've also spent a week examining my own stigma against sex work.  I would be lying if I said I was comfortable with the concept of people selling sex to make a living. I am not.  But the truth of the matter is that these workers are adults, whose average age is 27. They tend to be free agents, who aren't trafficked or pimped out.  They work because this work is profitable.  They can at least double the incomes that they could make in other jobs. And they aren't bad people. They are people who have chosen for whatever reason to do sex work. I may not  be comfortable with all of what their jobs entail, but I can support programs that seek to empower them and support them.  They are all God's children.
The other day, I went to observe a large support group for women sex workers.  They began their time together with a prayer.  During the break, one woman asked me what I was doing and told me that many sex workers are religious and active in churches and mosques. There is a spirituality, a yearning for God's love that runs deep within the veins of many of these workers, not just women, but men as well.  There is a dream that runs deep within many of these people that someday they might be able to work in a legal industry and be able to tell their religious leaders their profession without the fear that they might be kicked out or publicly condemned.
And in the background of all this, I see Jesus, walking up to a woman who has been condemned of adultery, about to be stoned to death.  He looks at the people, rocks in their hands, and says, "Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone." And the stones are laid down, and the people walk away.
I am learning to put down my stone and interact with others whose lives can seem so foreign to me. I am learning that sometimes the life that needs more Christ is not the other's, but my own. And may God use me so that I may help others become the whole people God created them to be.

Monday, April 21, 2014

3 Last Words of Jesus: Good Friday 2014

On Good Friday this year, I was asked to share in expounding upon the seven last words of Jesus.  I was given three of them.

"Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise"
Luke 23:42-43

            There were three men who were brought up the hill to be crucified that day.  One of them was Jesus, a man so weak; the soldiers forced Simon of Cyrene, who had been in the crowd, to carry his cross for him.  The soldiers kept mocking him, telling him that if he was the Messiah, if he was the King of the Jews, he could save himself.  They laughed as they hung the inscription above him, King of the Jews.
            But the other two hung there were there for good reason.  They were criminals, receiving the death sentence for the wrongs they had committed. Who knows what actions they may have done to deserve this sentence.  These criminals watched the proceedings along with the crowds, but they not only saw Jesus being nailed to the cross, they were nailed to their own as well.
            One of the criminals derided Jesus, just like the soldiers who were hanging him on the cross.  He mocked, saying,  “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” He laughed and jeered along with the others. He was upon a cross, a man condemned to die the same death as Jesus, yet even he was mocking Jesus. 
            The other criminal couldn’t take it.  He had seen the crowds and the soldiers mocking Jesus, and he had kept silent. But to hear someone mock Jesus as he was hanging next to him on a cross?  That he could not stand.  He stood up for Jesus, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
            It is unclear how much this man might have known about Jesus’ ministry.  What he did know was that Jesus should not be crucified.  He did not do anything that would warrant the death penalty.  He witnessed how Jesus had been treated, and he could not turn his back at the final insult hurled at Jesus. So he spoke up. 
            After he rebuked his fellow criminal, he turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Remember me when you come into your kingdom.  He looked at the inscription over Jesus’ head, and he confessed Jesus as King.  He understood who Jesus was. Even when everyone else was mocking Jesus and laughing at him, this criminal saw the Messiah.  He looked at a weak, bleeding body, a person who was nailed to a cross, and saw the Messiah.  When everybody else missed the Christ in their midst, a criminal dying on a cross saw him.  He saw him.
            I wonder how often we miss the Christ in our midst, the Messiah alongside us. How often do we go along with the crowd, mocking others? How often do we declare anybody to be less?  Less human, less deserving, less needy? How often do we fail to respect the dignity of every human being?
            But we don’t always fail.  Sometimes we see.  Sometimes we stand up.  Sometimes we fight for the dignity of others. Sometimes, in this world of pain, in a world that so often mocks the way of the cross, we find ourselves as the only ones who can stand up in the face of derision and rejection.  We recognize the body of Christ, still in our world.
In those moments, I imagine Jesus looking up, bloody and tired, hanging on a cross, but he looks us straight in the eyes, smiling a little as he says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

"I am thirsty"
John 19:28

“I am thirsty” the Messiah cries.
The same Messiah who had talked with a woman of Samaria at a well, saying, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”
This Messiah longs for a drink.
The same Messiah who told the crowds, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
This Messiah thirsts.
The same Messiah who cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.”
This Messiah cries, “I am thirsty.”
This man, this divine, feels the thirst of the world.
He feels the ache of the world.
All the pain and suffering ride upon his wounded back.
He leads us in expressing our want.
Our need.
Our thirst.
For our Messiah is thirsty.
As the deer longs for the water-brooks,
So our souls long for you, O God.
Our souls are athirst for God, athirst for the living God;
When shall we come to appear before the presence of God?
Why are you so full of heaviness, our souls?
And why are you so disquieted within us?
Put your trust in God;
For we will yet give thanks to him,
Who is the help of our countenance, and our God.
As the deer longs for the water-brooks,
So Jesus’ soul thirsted.
The heart of God ached upon that cross.
The fountain of life poured itself out.
The wellspring of life dripped its last drop.
Yet we can put our trust in God.
For we will yet give thanks to him,
Who is our savior, our help, and our God.
Oh God, you are our God; eagerly we seek you;
Our souls thirst for you, our flesh faints for you,
As in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
For your loving-kindness is better than life itself,
Our lips shall give you praise.
So will we bless you as long as we live,
And lift up our hands in your Name.
For you have been our helper,
And under the shadow of your wings we will rejoice.
Our souls cling to you;
Your right hand holds us fast.
The savior who said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” is thirsty;
Come let us give him drink.
Let us give him our hearts,
Let us bless him as long as we shall live.

"It is Finished" 
John 19:30

            We had spent the last few days going back and forth to the hospital.  We had a carefully planned calendar, ensuring that should Grandma’s time come, she would not be alone.  It had stopped being a matter of if she would die but when. We sang hymns to her, and we prayed for her.  Then one afternoon several of us were in her room, keeping our vigil.  The family was conversing, and I was spending my time coloring.  All of a sudden a deep quiet took over the room.  We all instinctively drew around her bed.  We watched as she took her last breaths.  She gasped once, twice, and then silence filled the room.  We began to pray. Her spirit left her, and later that week we put her body to rest.
            Jesus’ death looked different from my grandmother’s death.  She was in her seventies dying of a long-term illness in a hospital bed.  Jesus was in his thirties.  He was beaten, wounded, and nailed to a cross.  His death was violent.  But just like my grandmother’s death, there were some who kept vigil, waiting with him, making sure he was not alone.  I can imagine the three Marys and the beloved disciple gathered around the foot of Jesus’ cross.  They had never expected to find themselves here, they did not wish for this to be happening, but here they were and they could not look back.  It was no longer a question of if Jesus would die, but when.  They kept their vigil at the foot of the cross, watching and waiting.  Then all of a sudden there came a quiet upon them.  They instinctively drew closer to Jesus.  They knew his time was near.  Then they heard his final words, “It is finished.” He took his last few breaths, gasping once, twice, and then silence filled the earth. He gave up his spirit.  Then they too, working with Joseph of Arimathia and Nicodemus, put Jesus’ body to rest.
            Dying is a sacred act.  Death is a sacred moment.  Every last breath both releases a spirit and fills this world with a hole, a place of emptiness, where someone once was, but is no longer.  There is an ache. There is a loss.
            The three Marys and the beloved disciple were able to witness the most sacred of these moments, the moment when the Messiah who had been incarnate in the world was no longer.  He gave up his spirit.  With that came a deep ache and a deep loss.  There was a Christ shaped hole left in this world. 
            We know that this is not the end of the story, but today, let us contemplate the absence felt that day.  Jesus had been the Christ, living in the world.  He laughed, he cried, he touched people.  He was in flesh. Then it all got taken away.  In less than a week Jesus went from a beloved healer and revolutionary figure to dying on the cross. The crowds that once cried “Hosanna” had turned around and began to chant, “Crucify him.” When he was led off, his mother, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleopas and the beloved disciple came and watched vigil over him in his time of need, so he would not die alone.  Then, finally, after several hours of agony, he said simply, “It is finished” and he died.  The loss of Jesus left a deep pain and a deep hole in the world.  Those who followed him must have felt that the incarnation had come to an end.  There would be no more Messiah. God would no longer walk beside them.  This death was a truly sacred and a truly painful moment. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday Sermon 3/5/14

Every year, I come, needing a Lenten season. When I was a teenager, I would tell my parents that lent was the only time when church seemed real.  It felt like the only time when the church gave people space to express their hurts, their woundedness, and their pains.  I no longer believe that lent is the only time when this happens, but my younger self yearned for space to just sit in the ashes.  The ashes appeared otherworldly and transformative to me.  The ashen cross was such a powerful image to me that for several years in my late teens, I took up carrying the cross on my cheek, painted on daily with eyeliner.  I wanted the cross to mold my heart and my actions into conformity with Christ.  I wanted to be transformed by it.  And now here we are again, coming to bear this ashen cross upon our own foreheads, marking ourselves as mortal and fallible, asking in humble penitence to be transformed.
            This is a transformation that began at our baptism. We were all baptized into the death of Christ, that we may live in the power of his resurrection.  This season we focus on our baptism into Christ’s death.  It is a time to consider those mortal things that need to die within us, so that we may rise anew with Christ on Easter. 
            At baptism we pray for the candidates, asking that they may be delivered from the way of sin and death.  What are we asking God to deliver us from today?
            We ask that their hearts may be opened to God’s grace and truth.  What are the things that we have shut tightly within our own hearts that we need to open to God?
            We ask they may be filled with God’s holy and life-giving Spirit.  Where are our own spirits thirsting?
            I encourage you during this time to read back through the prayers offered at baptism and the promises made in the baptismal covenant.  Meditate upon them. Where do you need God’s help in fulfilling these in your own life?  At the end of these forty days, we will renew our baptismal covenants at the Easter Vigil.
            Our baptisms sealed us as Christ’s own forever, but we don’t always live fully into our Christian identities.  Our gospel lesson today warns us about that.  There are many who do good things.  There are many who pray and give to God.  And they have their reward for that. But their intentions aren’t where they should be.  Rather than coming seeking God’s will, looking towards God’s own heart, they do things for show.  It becomes more about seeking the approval of others.
            Jesus amplifies the problems so we can see them within our own lives.  We may not sound trumpets before giving offerings, we may not pray out loud on street corners, and we may not disfigure our faces while fasting, but we all have these kinds of tendencies.  Sometimes we want to do the right things to please people rather than to please God. And there are rewards for that, but they pale in comparison to God’s rewards.
            God’s rewards aren’t tangible things and I don’t think God’s reward is simply heaven instead of hell.  In fact I don’t even like the word reward here, because it makes it seem like God gives us something because we act a certain way.  And I don’t think that’s how it works.  I think that by seeking after God’s will, we are able to open ourselves up to God.  All of ourselves.  We can begin to open up all the shames we have, all the hurts we hold, all the wretchedness that we feel.  Through that act, we open ourselves up to grace that is beyond measure.  The everlasting God who hates nothing they have made is given free rein to forgive our sins, and to make in us new and contrite hearts.  Transformation is able to happen.  Not because we did actions that God approved of, but because we were able to give up our own control and let God work. 
            It’s hard work to do this.  We are human and we are dust.  Sometimes when we feel how small we are, how mortal we are, we get protective. We want to store every piece of who we are up into ourselves, as if we could keep ourselves from falling.  But if we pray earnestly, if we give control over to God and learn to live in God, despite uncertainty, we can learn a bigger truth.  We are human, we are dust, but we are also beloved.  Deeply and truly beloved.  Beyond all measure and beyond all logic.   Beloved.
            So come forward for ashes, leaving not with a smudge on your forehead, but a symbol.  A symbol that the one who hates nothing that they have made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent longs to create and make in us new and contrite hearts.  This is the transformative nature of the cross, and this is the promise we can carry with us throughout the Lenten season.
I want to leave you with a poem by Jan Richardson entitled “Will You Meet Us: A Blessing for Ash Wednesday:
Will you meet us
in the ashes
will you meet us
in the ache
and show your face
within our sorrow
and offer us
your word of grace:
That you are life
within the dying
that you abide
within the dust
that you are what
survives the burning
that you arise
to make us new.

And in our aching
you are breathing
and in our weeping
you are here
within the hands
that bear your blessing
enfolding us
within your love.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Sermon From 2/20 on Psalm 46

               Let us pray: Dear LORD God, who is our refuge and strength, be with us as we seek a more perfect understanding of you today.  May my words illumine and not cloud your message as we seek to understand you, oh LORD of Hosts.  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
            This passage for today brings a word of comfort. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” I grew up singing the first two verses in Sunday school.  Similarly, I could name half a dozen songs that use the beautiful words, “Be still and know I am God!” These verses and phrases are familiar, like a well-loved blanket that can keep us warm through cold winter nights. However, the familiarity can sometimes make it hard to see the power of the message provided.  This psalm is not merely a song of comfort, this is a song of hope for a better day, a strong belief that God will not let one fall, despite the chaos that can engulf one’s life.  It is an assertion that through God, we can find refuge from all sorts of anxieties that can plague our lives. God can be our refuge and strength, in times of both external and internal struggle.
            The psalm begins with the bold acclamation that “we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea”.  The earth and the mountains are both images of the permanent, images of the things that bring order and comfort to our lives.  In this passage these fixtures are being thrown into chaos.  The chaotic waters of the foamy sea threaten to destroy everything. Those things that are important threaten to collapse in front of our very eyes.  But the psalmist asserts that God is our refuge and strength and will be a present help in trouble. 
            Another image this psalm uses to express this threating chaos is the image of nations in an uproar, and tottering kingdoms.  This is an image of government instability and high death tolls.  People are dying in battle, and all that the government does becomes questioned.  Everything is in flux, and it feels as if chaos is about to overcome nations.  Yet, when God utters God’s voice, the earth melts, and there is a restoration of calm.  It is asserted that the Lord of hosts is indeed with us and the God of Jacob is our refuge. Though the mountains feel like they are about to shake and crumble into the sea, though it feels as if anarchy and chaos are right around the corner, God is our refuge. 
            The war imagery of this psalm is expanded further.  The psalmist invites others to come and behold the works of the LORD.  God is not merely a safe haven, something to be turned to for comfort.  God is the one who can make all wars cease, and the one who can destroy the implements of destruction.  God is powerful.  Out of this imagery comes the phrase, “Be still and know that I am God.” It may seem like an odd phrase to come after an image of world peace, but it is not simply about being motionless and basking in God.  The Jewish Publication Society’s translation carries the full impact of the phrase.  It translates the verse as “Desist! Realize that I am God!”  This is not about simply finding time to step away and contemplate God, it is about stopping in the middle of the chaos and coming back to the divine.  Chaos may appear to be imminent, but rather than feeding into the fear of that chaos and being swept up in it, we are called to stop and take the time to center on God.  God is the one who dominates both the nations and the earth, and God has the ability to carry you through.  Though chaos may be looming, God is a refuge on whom we can rely. We just have to stop and refocus. 
            It is assumed that this psalm was probably written before the temple was destroyed and the Israelites were cast out into exile away from their land.  That is because this psalm asserts that God will protect God’s holy habitation, which is the temple in Jerusalem.  But there is no historical way to know if this was written before the Israelites were cast away from their land or afterwards.  But I wonder what an Israelite would have heard when this psalm was sung in exile.  Their temple, their beloved city of Jerusalem seemed all but gone.  They were strangers in a strange land, and everything that had once seemed permanent and stable was destroyed.  Yet, God was asserted to be their refuge and help.  God would still be there to help them in their times of deepest need.  God was still in the midst of their city, their beloved Jerusalem, and maybe, just maybe, the Israelite could return home.  In the midst of the turmoil and pain that surrounded their current situation, there was hope. They could look to God as their refuge.
               Our world today looks almost nothing like the world of the ancient Israelites.  In the US, we do not worry about bows and spears, or the chaos of the sea.  We use planes, and worry about bombs and guns. But we do share the common experience of fear and anxiety.  And we have documented the crippling effects that fear and anxiety can have on humanity.  We may not be as afraid of the literal world crashing down around us, but many are fearful of their own worlds caving in on them.  Panic attacks cause some to feel as though they are on the verge of death.  PTSD causes others to be transported back to their most traumatic experiences, and even their sleep can be invaded by the worst nightmares.  What does it mean for them to find God to be a refuge in this arena of chaos?
             My fiancĂ© is a combat veteran of the war in Iraq.  Soon after he came home from war close to nine years ago, he was diagnosed with PTSD.  He experienced the chaos of feeling himself transported time and time again back into the trauma of war.  I do not know many details of his early struggles with the disease, but he spent years reliving his experiences, both in his nightmares and in his therapist’s office as he went through exposure therapy.
            In the midst of his turmoil, he connected with an old friend and found himself attending the meetings of a new monastic community that focused on contemplative spirituality and centering prayer.  There he found a greater ability to connect to the life giving Holy Spirit, the river that makes glad the city of God. He was able to learn techniques that allowed him to not only calm himself in moments of frustration, but also learned how to stop and shift his focus onto God. He learned what it meant to truly be still and know that God is God.  Through his psychiatric treatment he found strength to beat back the chaos, and through his monastic community, he found a way to make God his refuge.  He isn’t cured, but he has found hope and renewal.  He is coming out of his own exile, closer to the Holy Habitation of the Most High.
            His story is unique, but his search is something we all face at one time or another.  Some of us may experience anxiety disorders, while others experience anxiety caused by specific stressors.  Either can feel overwhelming at times, and we may worry that the seemingly permanent things in our lives might devolve into chaos.  We may fear that our lives will never be peaceful again, that we will be overtaken by the sweeping waves of the seas as they shake our very cores. It can often be difficult to stop and refocus upon God, relying upon God as a refuge.  And relying on God as a refuge doesn’t mean that the situation will clear up.  The waters still roar and foam, causing the mountains to tremble.  The nations are still in an uproar.  The Israelite is still in exile.  My fiancĂ© still has PTSD.  But things do slowly improve.  Maybe not right away, but when the vision shifts to God, God can begin to become a true refuge, providing us with strength in these times of trouble. It’s a slow process of learning to stop and shift focus. 
            The good news is that this process is not done alone. There is a river whose streams can make glad your inner city of God.  The Holy Spirit is always with us.  Even in those times when we are blind to God’s call, when anxiety has us by the gills, there’s still an advocate for us.  We still have the Holy Spirit to guide and protect us.  Even if we cannot recognize it, even if the chaos is overwhelming, God is our refuge because the Holy Spirit is God.  The LORD of Hosts is always with us, the God of Jacob is always our refuge. 
In the midst of the chaos, there is hope.  God can bring us from our place of anxiety to dwell fully in God’s holy habitation.  It’s a slow process and we may feel that we have been in exile forever, but things can change.  God can break the implements of the wars that rage inside us.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Let us pray: LORD, life giver and lover of all, we pray for those who experience anxiety and times of distress. We pray that your presence may be known to them and that they might be strengthened to be still and know that you are God. We pray also for those who have begun the path of continual refocus upon you.  We pray that they may someday arrive at your holy habitation, no matter how long their journey may be.  Lord, help us remember that you are our refuge and strength, and we can turn to you in all of our times of trouble.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.