Faith in the Midst of Lament

At the protest in 2008 at the School of the Americas,
Fort Benning, GA.

This is the text of the advent meditation I gave this evening on the theme of Sir Up… about how someone has stirred up my faith.

From the Gospel of John, the first chapter
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

My advent meditation is called, “Faith in the midst of lament” or “The Christmas Story from the perspective of a shepherd, watching the flocks by night, who is afraid of the dark”

There is so much in this world to break our hearts. Every day and every generation we seem to find new ways, or refine old ways to hurt ourselves and others.

Grief, illness, worry, stress, fear about our jobs, our families, the environment, all may trouble us, binding us with despair, driving us to cope in ways that sometimes are unhealthy, or dangerous.

Many of you know part of my story – that I went to Berkeley in 2006 to go to seminary to become a pastor. Instead, I lost my faith and struggled with depression and anger towards God about all of the suffering in the world.

I wanted to walk away from God, from the church, and at my worst moment, I wished for a brain tumor so I could walk away from life.

I was mad about the cruelty I saw in the world, the genocide in Rwanda, atrocities in Central America, child soldiers, and poverty. I grieved the death of my young niece, Merissa Pratt. I didn’t think I could hold this anger and pain in my heart and still have room for God.

I’m still mad about what I see and I know I’m not alone. I don’t want the victims of this world’s anger and hate to be forgotten. I want their names to be spoken. 

On my heart tonight are young black men who were killed, their lives crushed by systemic racism, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and too many more.

On my heart tonight are transwomen murdered just for being who they are, Deshawnda “Tata” Sanchez, Kandy Hall, Zoraida Reyes, Yaz’min Sanchez, Tiff Edwards, Mia Henderson. Alejandra Leos, and an unidentified victim, all killed in the US since June of this year.

And just this month, a 12 year old boy in Folsom, California, Ronan Shimizu, killed himself after anti-gay bullying he received at school.

There are people whose names or stories we don’t know: refugees in Syria, victims of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, victims of ebola, the victims of the mass murder of students in Guerrero State in Mexico.

There are the people in our own community, who struggle with homelessness, domestic violence, addiction and illness.

To paraphrase Psalm 13:1, How long, O Lord? Will you forget us forever?

How long will you hide your face from us?

So far, this has not been a really peppy meditation, but these are the kinds of thoughts that wore me down between 2006 and 2009. These are the kinds of reasons I felt that faith in God was not going to work for me.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in dwelling on questions of suffering, at least every now and then. Tonight I get to tell you about Jon Sobrino, the Jesuit theologian who stirred up and revived my faith. He was able to hold both anger about injustice and love for God and others in his heart. I am grateful for his witness, and I think that it is important to be honest about what sustains our faith in even the scariest of times.

Living and working in El Salvador since 1957, Jon Sobrino saw crushing poverty and brutal oppression. He and his colleagues began to speak up and act out against this, and to work on behalf of the poor in the midst of the El Salvadoran Civil War that left about 75,000 men, women, and children dead, mostly civilians. Sobrino and his colleagues believed and shared the good news that God desires life and creation, and that the acts of violence perpetrated against the people were not God’s will. He became my hero because of his courage and solidarity with the poor.

On November 16, 1989, while Sobrino was in Thailand on a speaking engagement, members of the military broke into the school where he taught and assassinated 6 of his colleagues, their housekeeper and her fifteen year-old daughter. Ignacio Ellacuria, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno, Ignacio Martin Baro, Amando López, Joaquín López y López, Elba Ramos and Celina Ramos. These friends and colleagues had worked alongside Jon Sobrino in his work for the poor and were taken away in a brutal act of cruelty and repression.

Instead of giving up, Sobrino kept working, living for a time in exile, faithfully speaking, writing, and teaching. Not only did he keep going in the midst of great suffering and personal loss, but he continued to be vocal in sharing the good news that God stands with those who suffer, that God is active and working to liberate God’s people, even if we may fear that God has left us all. God may not come as we expect, this is the story of Christmas. Jesus came to serve, not to rule on earth in power. God is present, and works through us to transform our world.

Sobrino’s writings captured my attention (so much so that I was able to go back to school and finish my degree). He helped me to see Jesus as relevant, he described God’s anger at injustice and passion for the value of human life and dignity in a way that stirred up my own belief. He lives a life of integrity, his life reflects his values, and this inspires me.

To this day, Jon Sobrino speaks and acts to call us to faith and to action, and I am grateful I got to see him speak at a protest at Fort Benning, Georgia in 2008. Studying him in school, hearing him speak, I wanted to stop dwelling on the questions of why God allowed bad things to happen, or how humans could be so cruel to one another. He asked us to take part in alleviating the suffering in this world, and I found in him a role model who could live out his faith in service to others without getting used up or becoming bitter.

My meditation’s subtitle, “The Christmas Story from the perspective of a shepherd, watching the flocks by night, who is afraid of the dark” really describes me. Scared by all I was seeing in the world, I refused to look up to see the bright star in the sky, and I forget to look at the examples of light and love that shine in others around us. As Sobrino said “Hope is the seed of liberation.” This is true for whole communities, and it was true for me in my own search for liberation. Once I found hope again for having faith, it slowly, carefully, began to regrow. It wasn’t instant, and it wasn’t easy, and sometimes I just had to hope that just showing up would be enough. It was.

I am so relieved to stand here, six years later, to have once again found God and an abundant life of faith, love, and community. I am grateful for my life. The Psalm of lament I quoted, Psalm 13 ends well too. “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Many of you here have helped me to find my way again, and Jon Sobrino did too. This year, for Christmas, I will still feel stress of holiday chaos, and ponder with grief and anger the injustice of the world. But I will trust in God’s presence and love in a way I couldn’t in 2008.

Through this journey, my faith was restored, and I found I could trust God again to care for this world. And just as importantly, I could trust God to hold closely in eternal love and faithful steadfastness those we have lost, my niece Merissa, our own Martin Schmidt, those I named tonight, and all those in our hearts. Every name, and everyone unnamed, is remembered and embraced by God.

I am motivated to try and make the world a better place, to be a part of God’s work here on earth. Sobrino lost so much, kept going in the midst of desperate injustice, kept his faith in God intact, and his example ignited the hope that brought back the spark of my faith even in the midst of lament.

“Hope is the seed of liberation.”

I hope we can each remember to look up, look around, and find a surprising abundance of faith and hope. Let’s not worry about a scarcity of goodness or love, but live with confidence in the promise of God’s presence. My Christmas wish is that we can be free to help others, to make a difference in the world, no matter how small, and find ourselves fed and nourished by the abundance that is in God.

I thank God for Jon Sobrino, for this community, and for all who stir up our faith.

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