Sunday, March 27, 2016

Help My Unbelief: Risen!

I join with millions of Christians across the globe in a profound celebration of the Risen Christ. It is in this miracle that I find my hope, my confidence, and my very life. My whole being worships with an utter certainty in remembrance of the cross, the grave, and the empty tomb. I love the cries of “He is risen,” offered in celebratory wonder. Sometimes, even the weather cooperates and Easter Sunday seems to embody new beginnings and new possibilities; the earth itself resurrecting from her long winter slumber as we commemorate the resurrection of Jesus.

But I am struck by the question put forth to the women who returned to the tomb after the Crucifixion, in order to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. Perplexed at finding the tomb empty, the women are asked: “why do you look for the living among the dead?” They are chastised for not remembering, or believing, that Jesus himself said that he would rise again. For some of the disciples of Jesus, this promise of resurrection seemed an “idle tale,” unfathomable in its scope and meaning. If we are honest, many of us are like the women at the empty tomb, looking for the living among the dead. Too many broken promises and too many unfulfilled dreams have made us cautious that we could dare to hope for new life.

Too many politicians have stood in our pulpits promising to support our communities, only to enact unjust legislation. Too many developers have promised to enrich our neighborhoods, only to allow gentrification to take a foothold and force us out. Too many preachers have promised a return for our financial seed, only to take advantage of the poorest of the poor. Too many authorities have promised to protect our neighbors, only to reinforce racial policing strategies. Too many teachers have promised to educate our children, only to set them up for the school-to-prison pipeline. So many broken promises…how can we believe? How dare we hope amid our unbelief?

If Easter means anything, it is a moment to pause and embrace a theology of the impossible. Impossible things have been done and impossible dreams have been achieved even in the face of death. Everyday, as poet Lucille Clifton writes, something has tried to kill us and has failed. The active and passive genocide of people of African descent has continued unabated. But we are still here. The leaders of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements have been killed, assassinated, and silenced. But the dream embodied by the Black Lives Matter movement is still here. The economic and social sanctions of Jim and Jane Crow have diminished opportunities and resources. But we are still making a way out of no way. I celebrate those who are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; those who are perplexed, but not in despair; those who are persecuted, but not abandoned; those who are constantly being struck down, but are not destroyed. This is the Easter message: new life and new possibilities emerge even in the face of death.

As I close my Lenten devotional series, my prayer is for all those individual and collective hopes and dreams that have died an early death or have been killed with harsh words, lack of support, or lack of resources. Let those dreams and desires arise anew in you. Risen, indeed!

© Yolanda Pierce

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Help My Unbelief: Holy and Silent Saturday

In anticipation of a joyous Easter, churches are preparing for one of the busiest Sundays of the year. The parking lots will be filled and the pews will be overflowing. All are looking forward to the triumphant message of Easter morning: "He is risen." For Christians, those words stir something deep within our souls. “Risen, indeed” is the joyous refrain we offer to the message of the defeat of death.

It is Holy Week and each day has a precious meaning. On Maundy Thursday, we remember the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples. On Good Friday, we turn our focus to the Passion of Christ and the suffering on the Cross. And on Easter Sunday, we declare the victory of the Risen Savior. But we often forget about Holy Saturday. In truth, our Saturday before Easter is a day filled with cooking and shopping. But I would argue that Holy Saturday is perhaps the most important day of this sacred week.

Holy Saturday is the silence of a period which straddles death and life; it is the silence of work done and yet unfinished. That silent and holy Saturday is the space between mourning and rejoicing; it is a time in which death has not yet been defeated, nor can victory be proclaimed. Holy Saturday is a time of doubt and unbelief. It is a time of a descent into hell.

Many of us spend quite a bit of our time in this liminal space that Holy Saturday represents: struggling with doubt, struggling with hell on earth, and struggling with work insistent and yet unfinished. We live in the space of justice delayed and justice denied. We live in the space of dreams deferred and dreams deterred. We cannot declare defeat, nor can we declare victory. It is a time in which God feels absent or silent. It is the pinnacle of all the times we cry to God, “help my unbelief.”

Holy Saturday is the tomb of parents mourning the deaths of their murdered children, with no hope that justice will prevail. Holy Saturday is the tomb of families at the borders who must choose between uncertain life or inevitable death. Holy Saturday is the tomb of those holding a vigil at a loved one’s bed in hospice. Holy Saturday is the tomb of a mother who must choose between feeding her babies or paying the rent. Holy Saturday is tomb of barren wombs, lack of love and healthy touch, and few choices for the future. Holy Saturday is the place where hope unborn has died.

There is a ritual in some churches which commemorate Holy Saturday. It involves blowing out candles, extinguishing all the lights of the sanctuary, and then waiting in silence, but with great expectation, for the coming dawn. Sometimes there is an empty coffin present at the altar. It is a powerful worship experience to simply sit with death and all of the various representations of death: doubt, fear, loneliness, disbelief, and weariness. You know that the dawn will come, that the lights will be turned back on, and the candles re-lit. But sitting in the silence of Holy Saturday prepares your heart for a resurrection and a rebirth.

Perhaps this is all that faith is: an assurance that even when things are at their dimmest, light will surely come and illuminate the darkness. Even in the silence, a voice can speak words of comfort. Even in the presence of death, a new circle of life has already begun. And so, during Holy Saturday and throughout our lives, we wait in the silence and in the stillness to hear the voice that says to us in the midnight hour: "be still and know that I am God."

© Yolanda Pierce

Friday, March 25, 2016

Help My Unbelief: Good Friday

Father, into Your hands, I commit my spirit...

This is the last of the seven phrases uttered by Jesus at Calvary. And with these final words, Jesus breathed his last breath, with a prayer on his lips until the very end.

Father, into Your hands, I commit my spirit...is a prayer of intimacy. Jesus calls on the Creator as a child calls on her parents. A mother can hear her child's cry in the middle of chaos and noise. It is a piercing sound that tugs at the very fabric of her being. Jesus calls on the Father and this cry tears the veil that separated us from the Holy of Holies.

Father, into Your hands, I commit my spirit...is a prayer of trust. Jesus yields himself to hands that are capable, hands that will stretch forth and lift you up when you are weak. Jesus trusts that the Giver of Life will also be the Restorer of Life. In the darkest hour of his need, Jesus calls on the One who neither sleeps nor slumbers.

Father, into Your hands, I commit my spirit...is a prayer of commitment. The work of the Cross is given over entirely to God. Jesus reminds the believer of the most important part of ourselves, that which can never be destroyed: the spirit. And so, in mind, body, spirit, Jesus willingly and generously surrenders all.

And while we can acknowledge that this particular Friday is “good,” in remembrance of the life of Jesus, this day also marks a horrific, unjust, and violent death of an innocent man. On this day, the cross and the lynching tree both speak. On this day, we remember those who face death “all the day long.” So before we so quickly rush to the "risen" moment that will end this Lenten season on Sunday, reflect on the lessons of this final word and remember.

Remember those who have been killed by state violence; remember those facing social death in jails and prison.

Remember those who could not get a fair trial; remember those whose innocence may never be proven.

Remember those left behind to grieve and mourn; remember those who fear that their lives do not matter.

Jesus commits his spirit into the hands of his beloved Father: I pray for those who have never experienced the intimacy of a parent's love and for those who so deeply miss that intimacy. Jesus commits his spirit into the hands of a trusting God: I pray for those who have been betrayed by hands they trusted and for those who are courageous enough to trust again. Jesus commits his whole self into the work for which he was sent: I pray for those who have committed their minds, bodies, and spirits to that which they believe and for those who are still longing for something or someone in whom they can place their hope.

© Yolanda Pierce

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Help My Unbelief: Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is a joyous occasion on the Christian liturgical calendar, marking the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. But Palm Sunday is also the beginning of an ending. It immediately precedes the most sorrowful occasion of the Christian calendar: the betrayal and death of Christ. Palm Sunday always reminds me of this contradiction: there were some who shouted "Hosanna in the Highest" on one day, who a few scant days later would also shout "Crucify Him." There were some who greeted Christ as the promised king on one day, who would later mock him and brand him a traitor a few days later. Palm Sunday is a reminder of how quickly public opinion shifts, depending on the whims of the powerful and mighty.

You hear the public shouts for "more money for mental health" when mass murderers from seemingly stable, middle and upper-middle class homes have committed unspeakable acts. But the lynch mob never fails to cry "kill him," when violence erupts among the urban poor, and among black and brown people. Criminals from inner cities are portrayed as animals and thugs, who should be locked in jail with no chance for parole, while murderers from the suburbs are worthy of diagnosis, treatment, and perhaps even rehabilitation. How quickly public opinion shifts...

When the drug crisis rages in urban communities, exacerbated by the lack of jobs and educational opportunities, newspapers detail the moral and ethical failings of the drug-addicted. The crowd exclaims that these black and brown drug addicts are “morally weak,” “out of control,” and offenders whose addictions should be treated as criminal acts. The crowd cries: “build more prisons.” But when the heroin epidemic hits white suburbs, the conversation takes a sympathetic twist for those in the “heartland.” And the crowd shouts for more access to drug rehabilitation centers; the decriminalization of drug offenses; and the treatment of addiction as a disease and not a criminal act. How quickly public opinion shifts…

When the weed dealer is on the corner in the Bronx or in Baltimore, he faces criminal charges that will most likely forever remove him from participating in the “legitimate” economy. “Send him to jail,” says the crowd.  But when the weed dealers are working in Colorado, making millions in marijuana dispensaries, they are labeled creative entrepreneurs for their profits in the drug trade. “Celebrate American ingenuity,” the crowd exclaims. How quickly public opinion shifts…

To truly understand Palm Sunday, you have to acknowledge the rest of the story that occurs later: the shifting of public opinion about the ministry of Jesus; the upcoming betrayal by a friend; a mockery of a trial; and a criminal execution by the state. To truly understand Palm Sunday is to recognize how quickly we can move from praise and affirmation to bloodthirstiness and calls for execution. And our public exclamations of praise or condemnation truly matter; they condemn some to death and offer life to others.

Are our songs of praise and adoration only for the rich and the powerful? Is our respect and admiration only for the well-connected? Are offers of rehabilitation and restoration only for the affluent and comfortable? Or are we willing to sing songs of freedom for those who have no material wealth; those who are the most vulnerable; those who lack the symbolic and tangible goods of prosperity? What do our praises of “Hosanna” mean if we fail to acknowledge the Christ who rides into town on a donkey, with only a carpet of cloaks and small branches for his “royal” procession, deliberately identifying himself with the poor and marginalized? Do we only love “Christ the King” or is there room in our theology for the love of Christ, the tried and executed criminal?

During these final Lenten days, may our cries be of affirmation for our mutual humanity, our mutual brokenness, and our mutual need for salvation. May we recognize the humanity and spark of divinity of those who often find themselves on the losing side of both history and public opinion.

© Yolanda Pierce 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Help My Unbelief: Behold!

  Woman, behold your son...
Disciple, behold your mother...

The Lenten season is almost at an end and I am left to reflect on one of the final moments Jesus experienced before his state-sanctioned execution. While in deep agony, Jesus relinquishes his filial duty to his mother. As the eldest son, her continued well-being was his responsibility. And so, into the hands of one of his disciples, Jesus commits the care of the woman he so dearly cherished. Not even the approach of death could diminish the love and respect he had for the one who had ushered him into the world.

This is Mary, the woman whose body and very being made the life of Jesus possible. This is Mary, whose blood was shed in the bearing of her child. But this is also a mother who would soon know the grief and sorrow of her son’s death at the hands of imperial authorities. This is a mother who would know the scorn of the world, those reveling in the death of her son. This is a mother who would be forever marked by the slaughter of her innocent child at the hands of unjust structures and systems. 

This brief exchange reveals something even more profound. It establishes a kinship bond between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the disciple to whom Jesus entrusted her care. It was not, as patriarchal culture would have demanded, the transfer of ownership of a woman from one male authority to another male authority. Instead, this move was a radical alteration of familial relationships. No longer would the ties of flesh and blood, or even marriage, be the only determinants for participation in a divine lineage. Mother and brother, sister and father, are no longer simply terms of biological destiny, but of right relationship. Kinship is transformed; family becomes a beloved community in which we are called to care for each other, without respect to blood ties. This is also the work of the Cross - a radical reordering and disruption of how we understand family.

How would our world look if we took this radical act at the foot of the cross seriously? How would we treat each other if we understood salvation as connected to being in right relationship with all our brothers and sisters? How would we change our politics and our policies if we imagined each person as our kin? How would our nation change if we respected each family structure as equally valuable? How would we live if we treated each member of our community as beloved in the sight of God?

That prisoner, freshly released from jail with no job skills, the victim of prison rape, functionally illiterate, with no place to go and no moral standing in the community - Behold, your son!

That woman, sleeping under the protection of the restaurant awning, with all her earthly belongings stuffed into a shopping bag, feet swollen from untreated diabetes, heart broken from abuse and neglect, hair matted and spirit cast down - Behold, your mother!

As this Lenten season approaches Holy Week, may we reflect on all that is necessary for people to be whole, healthy, and holy. The fullness of salvation involves filling hungry bellies and repairing broken bodies. The work of the Cross necessitates caring for the physical and tangible needs of our neighbors. On Calvary, Jesus pauses in his agony to simply say to two of the people he loved: “you need each other.” And a new family is born, even in the midst of sorrow and grief. May we behold the most vulnerable, the outcast, and the untouchables in our midst and claim them as our parents and siblings, loving them and loving ourselves into wholeness. We need each other.

© Yolanda Pierce 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Help My Unbelief: Were You There?

We have been here before, in 1857 in which the highest court of the land ruled that blacks were “beings of an inferior order,” and that they were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

We have been here before, in the years between 1882 and 1920, in which nearly 4,000 documented cases of lynchings of African Americans took place.

We have been here before, as the judicial system looked the other way, while both Southern and Northern trees bore strange fruit with blood on the leaves and blood at the roots.

We have been here before, in 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma when 35 square blocks of homes and businesses were torched by racist mobs and hundreds of African Americans were killed and thousands were left homeless.

We have been here before, in 1923 when a violent mob burned down almost every structure in the town of Rosewood, Florida and caused the deaths of 6 innocent black men.

We have been here before, in 1931 in Scottsboro Alabama, where a cover-up, an all-white jury, rushed trials, and angry lynch mobs led to a miscarriage of justice for nine black teenage boys.

We have been here before in 1955 in Mississippi with Emmett Till and then later in Chicago, when a grieving mother allowed her son’s lynched body to be photographed to demonstrate to the entire world the fate of black boys who dared to be free.

We have been here before, where an article of clothing - a hoodie or a headscarf or a hijab or a short skirt - seems to be a license to hate, disrespect, and enact violence.

We have been here before, when the victim’s past is on trial, where the very person who has been violated or raped or killed is the subject of scrutiny and speculation and suspicion - while his or her murderer or violator walks free.

Here is a place of brokenness and despair, where the lives of black and brown men, women, and children seem to be less valuable than the lives of others.

Here is a place where we confront our naked racism and the evidence that we have not come as far as we think from the Jim and Jane Crow era.

Here is a place where we are comfortable killing the black body and the brown body, and even after it is dead, raising it again and crucifying it, because the very color of this flesh is suspicious.

Here is a place of police brutality and public indifference.

Here is a place where the institutions built to protect and serve often bully and belittle.

Here is a place where we despair that justice will ever be done; where we are tired of marches and rallies, protests and petitions.

We have been here before, weary of good-doing; weary of having to explain; weary of the ways human beings can hate and harm each other.

But there is good news: we do not always have to be in this place. We have the power to strike a mighty blow at racism. We have the power to ensure that justice is served. We have the power to call on the names of the forgotten. We have the power to treat each other with human decency, knowing that “justice is what love looks like in public.”

As we continue the Lenten season, I am reminded of the words of an African-American spiritual, "Were You There:"

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

This is not a rhetorical question and it isn't about the people who may have witnessed the crucifixion. The song is about whether we show up in times of trouble. The song is about whether we are aware of suffering and sorrow. Were you present? Did you know? How did you react? Were you paying attention? Were you mourning the loss of an innocent man? Or were you a part of the crowd yelling "crucify Him?"

Injustice should cause us to tremble; indifference should cause us to tremble; racism should cause us to tremble; complacency should cause us to tremble; justice delayed should cause us to tremble, tremble. Were you there? And will you show up?

© Yolanda Pierce