Monday, December 17, 2012

The Wrath to Come

Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?[1] The “wrath” isn’t coming.  It already is here.

The last decade has witnessed an exceptional number of extreme heat waves around the world, increasing in frequency and intensity.  Some 55,000 deaths have been attributed to the heat wave in Russia in 2010, which destroyed about 25% of the annual crop yield, produced massive wild fires burning out more than 1 million hectares of land, and cost about $15 billion in economic losses.

This year’s drought in the United States affected about 80% of agricultural land, the largest drought since the 1950s.  2012 was the hottest year on record in the U.S., with forest fires ranging from Missouri to Colorado, the Mississippi River at a near-record low, and water systems taxed throughout the country.  We are witnessing a ten-fold increase in the surface area of the planet experiencing extreme heat since the 1950s.

Then there was Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record in terms of diameter, with winds spanning 1,100 miles and effecting 24 states.  Preliminary estimates place the cost of damage at $65.6 billion, $63 billion worth in the United States.  More than 250 people died and thousands are homeless.  A 13 foot storm surge flooded much of lower Manhattan; probably not for the last time given the combination of rising sea level and increasing storm intensity.

In countries like Bangladesh, with low lying river delta regions barely above sea level, a new class of people is now appearing in the urban slums by the thousands: climate migrants fleeing homes lost to river erosion and sea level rise.   Bangladesh, by no means a rich country, has spent $10 billion to mitigate the affects of climate change there.  This is just the beginning of the largest mass migration in human history, with estimates of up to 1 billion people eventually being displaced by the effects of climate change.

Global mean temperature is on track to rise between 3.5 and 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, with an accompanying increase in sea level rise of between .5 and 1 meter.   That is IF governments adhere to the current climate conventions to which they have agreed.  Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the following centuries would like experience 6 degree Celsius warming with several meters of sea-level rise.

While this may not seem large, consider that a global mean temperature increase of 4 degrees Celsius approaches the difference between temperatures today and during the last ice age, when much of central Europe and North America were covered with kilometers of ice.  And the magnitude of climate change we are experiencing – human induced – is occurring over a century, not a millennia.[2] 

We really don’t know how well the planet – much less human beings and human institutions – can adapt to such rapid change and the cascading effects it will have on weather patterns, biodiversity, sea levels and ocean acidity, crop failure, water scarcity, disease vectors, flooding, drought, collapse of infrastructure, economic instability, human migration, and political conflict.  We do know that the greatest suffering will be among the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

I’ll tell you who warned you to flee from the wrath to come:  the scientific community and such wild-eyed prophets of doom as Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank.  Al Gore is our John the Baptist; and the unquenchable fire John threatened is beginning to look mild compared to the apocalyptic scenarios predicted by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

As Walter Wink has said, “We are living in an apocalyptic time disguised as normal, and that is why we have not responded appropriately.”[3]  Apocalyptic times call for apocalyptic prophets:  people who are willing to risk their reputations and even their lives to tell us the truth about our situation, however difficult it may be to acknowledge. We need the prophets’ capacity to shock us into recognizing reality, their uncanny ability to envision futures that we literally can’t imagine. 

The philosopher, Gunther Anders, writing at the height of the Cold War’s commitment to Mutually Assured Destruction, said, “Imagination is the sole organ capable of conveying a truth so overwhelming that we cannot take it in.”[4]  Global climate change, like nuclear war, is so overwhelming that we cannot take it in; but unlike a nuclear war, climate change already has begun.  We don’t have to imagine: we just have to pay attention.  Our prophets are not predicting; they are describing. 

As difficult as it is for us to pay attention to our prophets, thank God for them.  They paint such ghastly pictures for us precisely because they want us to avoid them.  Their urgency is in the service of our conversion because they believe we can change.  In the wager over the probability of the apocalypse, the prophets are betting on us.

That is the take away from John’s confrontation with the crowds who come out to hear him.  For all his indelicate language, notice his receptivity to their plea, “What shall we do?”  He is even open to the possibility that tax collectors and soldiers – the very people driving Israel toward its apocalyptic conflict with Rome – can change.  It is as if coal and oil industry executives gathered at the feet of Al Gore and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”  The Gospel stretches our imagination not only by envisioning an apocalyptic future, but also by envisioning the possibility that the apocalypse can be averted precisely by the people we are least likely to entrust with our future.  They, too, can repent and move into the future that God desires for us.

Conversion is possible.  We can change.  This is the good news of John the Baptizer.   The kingdom of God is near, and it is the anti-apocalyptic possibility that we can not only imagine, but also experience as God-with-us.
Thus far with John the Baptizer we can go.  But there is a problem with his vision; at least, the One who is coming to reveal God-with-us, Jesus, doesn’t comport to John’s image of him.  He sees Jesus coming to baptize us with the Holy Spirit AND with fire.  John’s Jesus is the source both of the sharing of God’s life with us that is the Holy Spirit, and of the wrath that is to come. 

The actual Jesus comes only to baptize us with the Holy Spirit.  Rather than dealing out divine wrath, he becomes the victim of purely human wrath.  Yet the Holy Spirit, the life of God within him overcomes that wrath, such that in the Resurrection he appears to those who betray and abandon him and breathes Holy Spirit over them saying, “Peace be with you.” 

It is we human beings who are the source of the wrath to come, the apocalyptic possibility that is a function of the structures of exploitation and violence that we create. It is not God who condemns us to the hell of a warming planet.  It is we who condemn ourselves.  

Like the crowds gathered around John the Baptizer, we are a people caught between two possible futures.  We are troubled by the words of the prophets, frightened, bewildered, and, yes, guilty as charged.  And we look into the face of the Apocalypse and ask, “What then should we do?” 

We can choose to change.  We can be converted to the future of God-with-us by recognizing and entrusting ourselves to the Compassionate Presence that is coming, is always coming, to renew the face of the earth.  That renewal begins with our acknowledgement that God has created and redeemed us for life, not for wrath.  The only fire that Jesus brings is the purifying fire of love. 

It is the fire of this love that will ignite our capacity to imagine a future that now seems impossible: a post-fossil fuel world.  “Nothing can save us that is possible,” says the poet, W. H. Auden, “We who must die demand a miracle.”[5]  The miracle we demand has already happened.  The One who is coming has already come, demonstrating that only love conquers death.  God so loved the world that he gave us his Son, his very life, God-with-us.  We must come to see ourselves, and our planet, as the objects of this undying love, and allow that love to become the touchstone of all our relationships.

The prophet’s frightening scenarios serve to wake us up to the truth.  But is this love, and not fear of the wrath to come, that will give us the energy to heal the world.  The prophets point beyond themselves, and their apocalyptic visions, to One who is coming to heal and forgive.  We do not want for technological and economic pathways to a better world.  What we lack is love, for if we truly loved the world, we would not destroy it.  In fact, we would make the sacrifices necessary to preserve it.  

For God so loved the world . . . We, too, must have the courage to love and to demand a miracle.

[1] John the baptizer to the crowd gathered to hear him speak.  Luke 3:7-18.
[2] Turn Down the Heat:  Why a 4˚ Warmer World Must Be Avoided (The World Bank, November 2012).  Information on Hurricane Sandy comes from coverage in the New York Times.
[3] Walter Wink, “Apocalypse Now,” The Christian Century, October 7, 2001, pp. 16-19.
[4] Quoted in Wink, ibid.
[5] Quoted in Wink, ibid.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Hell: Its Not What You Think It Is

Sometimes it takes a startling image to reveal the truth about our lives; especially the hard truths we would rather avoid.  Among modern storytellers, perhaps no one understood this better than Flannery O’Connor.  The characters in her stories are often physically deformed in some way, strange and ugly people who mirror what is strange and ugly in all of us.  She used provocative, even violent, stories to express the depth of our need – and desire – for healing and redemption.

Commenting on her own work, O’Connor once said, “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.”   Paul Nuechterlein helpfully suggests that we read these hard sayings of Jesus in the same way: an intentional use of grotesque imagery in an attempt to shock his disciples into understanding his teaching.  The Gospel of Mark is full of metaphors of seeing and hearing, underscoring the irony that while Jesus heals those who are blind, deaf, and mute, his disciples remain unable to see and hear what he his about.

Jesus raises the stakes in this part of the narrative, invoking images of self-inflicted dismemberment and unquenchable fire to get through to his disciples – and to us.   What is it that drives Jesus to such extreme language?  Not to put too fine a point on it, what in the hell is he talking about?  “Hell” is the interpretative key that unlocks the meaning of these hard sayings.

The word “hell” in this passage corresponds to the Hebrew ben Hinnom, rendered in Mark’s Greek as GehennaBen Hinnom is not a metaphysical place of eternal punishment.  It is a notorious valley (Valley of the Son of Hinnom) southwest of Jerusalem that abuts the Kidron Valley.  It is notorious because it was the place where children were sacrificed to the god, Molech, as recorded in the Book of Kings (II Kings 23:10)  The prophet Jeremiah also described the practice and its consequences.

For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it.  And they go on building the high pace of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire – which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.  Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room.  The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away.  (Jeremiah 7:30-33)

Note that, for Jesus, “hell” refers to an actual place of suffering created by human beings.  It signifies the final denouement of a violent culture that is consummated in the willingness to sacrifice even children to the false gods we worship.  Note, however, that the true God, the Lord, has nothing to do with it – God did not command it, nor did it even occur to God.  This consuming fire is of human creation.  The threat of hell is not God’s punishment, but rather the inevitable consequence of the self-destructive cycle of human envy and rivalry.

Jesus evokes this grotesque imagery precisely in the context of his instruction to his disciples to welcome children and his warning not to put any stumbling block in their way.  Earlier, Jesus had embraced a child as a counterpoint to the disciples’ rivalry amongst themselves to become the greatest of his followers.   He lifts up the vulnerability of the child as an icon of God that is opposed to the disciples’ attempts to use God as the justification of their desire for dominance.  

Now the action moves from the internal rivalry among the disciples to their rivalry with other factions within the Jesus movement.  John wants to stop someone who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but who isn’t following them.  Rather than condemning this unnamed rival, Jesus commends him for exercising power to set people free instead of using power to dominate others, and assures the disciples that even the simplest act of refreshing the thirsty, who bear the name of Christ, will have its reward.  

The disciples remain focused on greatness, while Jesus continues to underscore the value of humble service.  The disciples want invincible success.  Jesus points the way to healing through accepting and honoring human vulnerability.  He emphatically warns them against putting any stumbling block before the little ones who trust him.  

Jesus understands the grave danger that comes with our desire to be number one.  It leads to envy of those who possess what we want, and rivalry with others in pursuit of our desire.  Envy and rivalry cut us off from God and from others, to the point that we becoming willing to sacrifice others – even our children – in the pursuit of our desire.  We no longer see the other as bearing the name of Christ.  

Here, Jesus touches on the root of the violence of our culture.  When we come to see others as objects blocking the fulfillment of our desires, our greed and envy blind us to their humanity.  No longer perceiving the humanity of the other, we willingly sacrifice them so that we can be the greatest or, at least, feel more secure.    From the teasing and bullying that haunts our playgrounds and classrooms, to the risk taking with the economic well being of others that pervades our markets and boardrooms, to the global warming that undermines access to food and water, the god Molech goes by many names, to whom the lives of vulnerable children and adults are sacrificed daily.  The fires of ben Hinnom have not yet been quenched.

Jesus rightly points out that those who practice sacrificial violence will finally be destroyed by it themselves.  The fires of ben Hinnom are not limited to the vulnerable children; the poor; the disposable people.  This cycle of violence threatens to consume the planet itself.  As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically recognized so many years ago, “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence.  It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” 

Such apocalyptic violence is the consequence of human choice, and Jesus invites us to choose differently.  Rather than sacrificing others, cutting ourselves off from them and God, he invites us to cut off the hand that grasps in greed, the foot that tramples on the vulnerable, the eye that envies what others possess.  Jesus teaches us to sacrifice our distorted desires, to let go of the fear that drives our greed and envy, and instead, like little children, entrust ourselves to the care of God.  

Hell is not inevitable.  The valley of ben Hinnom can become a smoking wasteland, or it can become a blooming garden.  It comes down again and again to whether or not we see vulnerability as something to exploit, or as an invitation to recognize our mutual dependency and intrinsic connection.   This is, I think, why Jesus turns to the image of the child, because children represent so clearly both the risk and promise of our response to human vulnerability.  Our fear and disdain of vulnerability is so great, our mechanisms for masking and exploiting it are so entrenched, that Jesus resorts to the grotesque imagery of child sacrifice to wake us up to the truth of both the risk and promise.

Vulnerability can be exploited; it can expose us to trauma and abuse.  That is the real risk.  Yet, even when its fragility has been dishonored, when the risk makes us want to close down and close off from God and the world, when we are tempted to repeat the patterns of violence that have formed us, there is that of God within us that desires connection.  

I was poignantly reminded of this truth while watching the movie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  The film beautifully captures the risk and promise of vulnerability in a coming of age story that is both grotesque and redemptive.  Charlie, a painfully shy high school freshman, is deeply in love with his friend, Sam, a senior, who has taken him under her wing.  

Sam, however, is unable to reciprocate his love.   She re-enacts the victimization of a childhood trauma with a series of young men who reinforce her sense of inferiority.  She seems unable to experience vulnerability as anything other than a threat.  

Unbeknownst to her, Charlie carries his own dark secret; yet, he is slowly, painfully coming to see that vulnerability holds the promise of connection, that such connection can be a source of healing as well as means of violation.  He desperately wants to share this healing with Sam, and cannot understand why she does not desire it too.

Charlie musters the courage to ask his English teacher, Bill, why people choose to be in relationships with people who don’t genuinely care about them.  Bill wisely asks, “Do you have someone in particular in mind?”  “Yes,” Charlie reluctantly admits.  Bill considers Charlie’s question carefully before replying, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” 

God comes to us in Jesus as one who has experienced fully the risk and promise of vulnerability.  He wants desperately to share the healing power of love that makes the risk worth the promise.  And he wants to share it with someone in particular – with you.   Don’t settle for the love you think you deserve.  God desires so much more for you and for me.  The promise of vulnerability is that it opens us to give and receive the love that sustains the world: restoring even the ruins of the valley of ben Hinnom.  The promise is worth the risk.  Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

God the Child

One of the highlights of my week during the school year is the St. James Preschool chapel service on Wednesday mornings.  This past week I told the Godly Play creation story to the kids.  Some of you may be familiar with it.  Part of the story goes like this:

“In the beginning, in the beginning there was, well, in the beginning there wasn’t very much.  In the beginning there was nothing.  Except, perhaps, an enormous smile; but there was no one there to see it.  Then, on the very first day, God gave us the gift of light.”

The story continues from there, but you get the picture.  Cut to Wednesday night, and Maisie, from the Rabbit class, is getting tucked into bed by her mother. 

Maisie:  Good night, Mommy.  I love you all the way to infinity and back.
Mommy:  I love you all the way past infinity and back.
Maisie:  Past infinity?  But where does infinity go, Mommy?
Mommy:  It keeps going and never ends.
Maisie:  Is God before or after infinity? 
Mommy:  That's a very good question, Maisie. 

Long pause.  Now, at this point, I’m quite certain Mommy is beginning to break a sweat.  But on this night, at least, she’s let off the hook when Maisie finally says, “I think I'll ask Father John...he'll know!”

If you think this Sunday morning gig is challenging, try facing 30 three and four year olds every week!

Jesus wasn’t fooling around when he took a little child, held her in his arms and said to his rather dense disciples, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."  Jesus wasn’t trying to be cute or sentimental.  Rather, he was illustrating the point that God doesn’t evaluate success the way that we normally do.  And he does so in a rather astonishing way – by saying that God is like a little child.

If we want to be close to God, we have to welcome the child – both real, live actual children, and the child-like, dare I say, God-like, capacity that we all carry within.  If we want to be close to God, we have to welcome the child.

I think the clue to what Jesus is up to here comes from the immediate context of the story.  Jesus has told his disciples, on more than one occasion, that he is going to be betrayed, killed, and then rise again.  They still don’t get it.  They can’t get it, not yet, because it doesn’t square with their definition of what God is like and therefore with what God’s Messiah, Jesus, should be like. 

For them, God is large and in charge.  God is the guarantor of worldly success, blessing those who are good and punishing those who are bad.  Therefore, it follows that God’s Messiah will be powerful and triumphant.  A Messiah who is condemned and dies isn’t much help.  A Messiah like that is a scandal, a failure and thus no Messiah at all.

But what if God isn’t like that?  What if God is more like a little child, more like Maisie, more like what you and I aspire to be like in our best moments?

We tend to think of God as one who is remote and unaffected by the ebb and flow of life; an unmoved mover who is literally above it all.  But what if God is more like a child – seemingly always underfoot, at the center of it all, completely open and taking it all in.  Such a God, however powerful, would also need to be incredibly vulnerable and receptive.  Jesus understood that children, then as now, are the most vulnerable among us.  In welcoming them, we welcome our own vulnerability and that of others.  We welcome the vulnerability of God.

We also tend to think of God as one who is preoccupied with evaluating, comparing, rewarding, and punishing.  Such a God inspires fear and perhaps, therefore, compliance, but also a fair bit of resentment and resistance.  We are always trying to measure up to this God, and never quite making it.  So, we either drop out of the competition altogether, or else double down our efforts to be successful.

But what if God is less concerned with measuring up to an ideal, than with exploring what is?  Until we’ve socialized them into the stress-filled, status preoccupied culture we’ve created, in which nothing matters but success, children are completely creatures of the moment, the here and now.  They are fully present to their experience and give themselves over to it without reservation.  Try to tell a child that it is time to stop doing whatever they are doing before they are ready and transition to whatever is next and you’ll know what I mean.  Meltdown! 

We are constantly focused on what’s next, what we should be doing, what others can do better.  Children are focused on this beautiful present moment.  It is enough, just as it is.  In fact, if we really perceived reality as they do we would be stunned by the awesome wonder of it all.  I’m not saying that children are perfect.  I’m saying they are awake, operating at a level of wide open awareness that we have to work to narrow down, focus, and prioritize.  Their first move is to wonder . . . “Is God before or after infinity?”  Whereas our first move is to evaluate “How do I answer this question correctly?”  They get excited!  We get stressed!

In welcoming children, we renew our capacity for awe before the sheer mystery of it all.  We welcome the mystery of God, the Source and End of life.  And we don’t need to worry about it.  We just need to see it as it is in all its wonder, and give ourselves – and others, including our children – permission to enjoy it.  Too often, we are like the plumber, recently graduated from his apprenticeship, who was staring intently at Niagra Falls.  Finally, he announced, “I think I can fix that.” 

Life is not a problem to be solved.  It is a mystery to be enjoyed.  Welcome the child. 

If we too often imagine that God is distant and demanding, there also is a part of us that believes that God is capricious.  This is evident in the behavior of the disciples, who were arguing among themselves about which of them was the greatest.  When God is both demanding and capricious, one either seeks to be obedient out of fear, or to bend the world to one’s own will out of a cynical disregard of God and others.  That cynicism, too, is finally rooted in fear – the fear that God and others can not be trusted. 

People who are consumed with getting ahead, with making the most of every advantage and exploiting their privilege, are deeply insecure people.  They are afraid, and so the struggle to be the greatest, to be on top of the heap, is a misguided attempt to alleviate their anxiety.  It is an expression of deep cynicism and distrust of God.

But what if God does not exercise freedom arbitrarily?  What if God is limited in at least this respect:  God is free only to love, because that is the nature of God? Perhaps God is more like a child than a tyrant, for children are incredibly unconstrained compared to adults in their freedom to give and receive love.

Now, I’ve met quite a few tyrannical three-year olds; I’m quite sure I was one.  Theirs is an age appropriate egocentricity in response to their developmental needs.  No, what I’m pointing to is that despite their terrifying dependency in almost every respect, their capacity to love is remarkable: whether it is a dog, a doll, a beloved blanket, or daddy. 

Children love freely, because they trust God’s love in a fundamental way.  They are so quick to forgive our manifest faults as adults charged with their care, because they literally can’t believe that anyone would wish them harm.  It is too scary to for them to contemplate.  It requires a fair amount of trauma to turn their freedom into cynical disregard.  Children know intuitively that they are beloved; the apple of God’s eye.  All too soon, life can disabuse them of this, at the cost of their true nature.

One week, I was unable to lead the Preschool chapel service, so Roger, the Preschool’s director, substituted for me.  Later, he shared with me a conversation that one of the little girls had with her mother when she came to pick her up that afternoon.  Her mother asked her how chapel was.  The little girl looked pensive for a moment and then said, “Well, God wasn’t there, but Roger was.”

Here is a child not yet consumed with cynicism, for whom priesthood can still serve as an icon of God’s loving presence.  We all share in this priesthood by virtue of our baptism.  We are all called to be free to love, to be transparent to God.  When we are free in this way, without insecurity or cynicism, we become far more concerned with how to love in any given situation, than with how to gain some competitive advantage.  In those moments, we welcome the child.  We welcome God the Child.

Jesus invites us to welcome the child, to reimagine God as mindful presence, as wonder-evoking mystery, as unconstrained love.  He invites us to remember who we were created to become.  Amen.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Following a Failed Messiah

I am slowly coming to accept a very hard truth: I don’t know what part of my life experience may prove useful to another – or even to myself at any given point in time.  So I have to accept it all and turn it all over to the sifting of God the Holy Spirit.  I never know what She might choose to make an instrument of healing; often, it is the mistakes, the failings, the fumbling attempts to succeed that go nowhere that become the fuel enkindling the fire of God’s love.

We have tendency to want to offer only our best to God.  We expect God to make use of our gifts, our strengths, our successes.   We only allow people to see the parts of our lives that put us in the best possible light.  But it is in the shadowy recesses of our soul that the seed of compassion often takes root.   It is as we come to accept our failures that this seed is nurtured and begins to bloom, becoming a tree of life in whose shade others may find rest for their souls.

Like Peter in today’s Gospel lesson, we really don’t want to hear this.  Peter doesn’t want to hear that Jesus will have to suffer and be rejected and be killed and then rise again.  Peter is so shocked by this announcement that I doubt he even hears the part about rising again. 

All he can hear is that Jesus is a failed Messiah.  He isn’t measuring up and meeting expectations.  Peter doesn’t trust that God will bring new life out of death.  He doesn’t believe that Jesus’ failure will become the most powerful source of healing the world has ever known.  Do we?

The answer to this question is a matter of experience.  It hinges on our capacity to receive the brokenness of Jesus and of our own lives as a place where infinite compassion and forgiveness have come to dwell.  God comes to us in Jesus as the source of grace whereby we can find freedom from the fear, guilt, and self-preoccupation that tend to block the flow of love in our lives.  Our brokenness is not a barrier to life with God, but rather the crack in the ego’s armor through which God’s gracious presence can enter into our awareness. 

Jesus doesn’t retreat into the safety of a life in which he can manage all the outcomes, control how others perceive him, and preserve his reputation.  Life is not something to be saved.  It is meant to be given away, to be recklessly spent in the service of love, risking everything for the sake of love – even failure.  Even death. 

The paradox is that the more we give our lives way, the more we save them, because what is gained in the process is an increase in the flow of love.  Love never dies.  It only increases our capacity to give ourselves away.

Perhaps the truly hard part is not this giving of our life to the work of love, but rather the necessity of sharing all of it – even the parts we’d rather hide or deny.  The offering of our lives to God means sharing even the shameful parts – especially the shameful parts, so that they can be transformed by grace into the very means whereby we become transparent to God’s forgiving and healing love for others.

There is a saying in AA:  “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”  

I was reminded of this saying by a recent story in the Christian Science Monitor about Arno Michaels.  Twenty-five years ago, Michaels was a racist skinhead.  Although he grew up in a comfortable Milwaukee suburb, by the age of sixteen he was deep into the punk subculture and became radicalized as a member of two of the most notorious racist groups in the United States.  As Michaels describes his experience, “We practiced hate and violence, and we became very, very good at it.”

Michaels was actively involved in the white supremacist movement for seven years until the mid-1990s, and continued to struggle with alcoholism until he began to get sober in 2004.  He recalls being crazed with hatred of blacks, Jews, and queers, even fronting for a heavy metal hate band whose music continues to serve as an anthem for the white power movement.  He burned down the homes of African-Americans and reveled in gay-bashing. 

It took the birth of his daughter and the violent death or imprisonment of numerous friends to wake him up to the truth of his brokenness.  He now works with a group of former gang members and white supremacists to produce a monthly online magazine dedicated to human goodness called Life After Hate (which also is the title of his memoir), and has developed an anti-bullying character development program called Kindness not Weakness.  He credits the practice of meditation with opening himself up to the power of compassion and forgiveness.

Speaking to youth at hip-hop dance competition in Wisconsin recently, Michaels described how the murders of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager, in 1955 and of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, in 1998 were fueled by the same raw material of fear and ignorance that drove his own violent past.  The room fell quiet as Michaels confessed to brutally beating a gay man and then laughing about it nearly 20 years ago.

“I’ll never forget that night,” Michaels admitted.  The past still haunts him.  “But,” he added, “I have the power to transform that act of stupidity into something positive, and I can share that with you guys, to hope that you can learn from my mistakes.”  Once the founder of one of the largest racist skinhead organizations in America, Michaels now credits Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Run-DMC as major influences.

Our failings may not be as dramatic as those of Arno Micheals, but as the Letter of James reminds us, “all of us make many mistakes.”  It is from the stuff of our mistakes – failed marriages, lost jobs, struggles with addiction, everyday contempt, indifference, and selfishness, all the little deaths through which we must pass – that we are raised to new life.   It is as we come to accept the truth of our failings with compassion, it is as we die to the false images of ourselves to which we cling, and instead come to see ourselves whole, that we become usable for God’s healing purposes. 

Jesus bore the shame of the cross, condemned as a blasphemer and criminal, to demonstrate that nothing and no one is beyond the redeeming power of God’s love.  We can share everything with God in trust that God will make use of even our most shameful experiences as a means of grace.  When we are willing to accept God’s love and forgive ourselves, even our gravest failures can become a means of grace for others. 

It is in losing our lives – the lives we think we should have, accepting instead our actual lives as we have lived them – that we save them.   And maybe, just maybe, through the grace of Jesus Christ, those lost lives can become a means of saving others as well.  Amen.