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We Are the Balm in Gilead

18 Sep

Photo Credit: Christian Peacemaker Teams

What follows is a message I delivered Sunday, September 18, 2016 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Salisbury, Maryland, for their designated Peace Sunday, to commemorate the upcoming International Day of Peace (September 21).  I was asked to offer a reflection of my service with Christian Peacemaker Teams and the concept of peacemaking.


My Friends, we meet on holy ground.  Let’s take a moment to extend our appreciation to the Assateague, Choptank, Piscataway, Wicomico of the Naticoke band, and Pocomoke peoples- the First Peoples- who resided in this region we now call Wicomico county. If I neglected other nations, I beseech forgiveness.  We honor this, their land.  We honor their proud, continuing, living spirit and heritage.  We, descendants of settlers, and sojourners on this side of Creator’s kingdom, yearn to live in right relationship with our Indigenous sisters and brothers.  We give thanks for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for their continued witness against the Dakota Access Pipeline.  May we have ears to hear….

The photos that will accompany my remarks, are just a fraction from my years of service with CPT.  But just to give some context, I included: 1) the Alqonquins of Barrier Lake, an Indigenous community in a colonial province now known as Quebec, who challenged unwanted clear cut logging on their traditional lands; 2) Elsipogtog, a Mi’kmaq community in the colonial province of New Brunswick, who in 2013 received international attention because of their steadfast resistance to proposed fracking on their un-ceded traditional lands; 3) Grassy Narrows First Nation located in the colonial province of Ontario, who also have received international attention because they have the longest active blockade, resisting unwanted clear cut logging on their traditional territory; 4) Hebron and the South Hebron Hills, Palestine. Please know, I have selected what I will term “G rated photos.”


Photo Credit: Pei Ju Wang

For more context to my bio that appears in this morning’s bulletin, I am female, LGBT, Iranian national by birth (from Shiraz), supposedly from the Quashqai people, an Indigenous tribe of Iran. I now carry a US passport. That makes me an Iranian-American, but I really have no idea what that is supposed to mean. I was raised within the Quaker tradition. After many years being un-churched, I am now an Episcopalian when on this side of the border and Anglican when on the northern side.  I am a ‘smells and bells’ type gal, with more incense, the better. However, I embrace the contemplative, mystical heart.

While serving with CPT, my teammates referred to me as the walking i-Pod.  I have this uncanny ability to burst into song, with some random tune, even during rather stressful moments, when police appeared to be multiplying like locusts.  Prior to CPT, Lady Justice (the stoic woman-blindfolded-with even scales in one hand and sword in the other) enamored me, so I became one of those dreadful, locust like lawyers.

Because of that continuing interest of mine, I am currently reading “The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle that Brought Down the Klan” by Laurence Leamer.  In it, Clarence Darrow’s ‘The Story of My Life” is referenced.  Mr. Darrow was describing that as a young lawyer, when hanging out his shingle, “not only could I put myself in the other person’s place, but I could not avoid doing so.  My sympathies always went out to the weak, the suffering, and the poor.  Realizing their sorrows, I tried to relieve them in order that I might be relieved.”  I’m wired that way too.

Laurence Leamer then continues: “It’s hard to see suffering.  It’s hard to see injustice.  It hurts to see evil triumph.  And when it doesn’t hurt, then you’re dead inside.”


Photo Credit: Christian Peacemaker Teams

……Ferguson. Baltimore. Freddy Gray. Dallas. Baton Rouge. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Mother Emanuel 9. Alison Parker and Adam Ward. Orlando. San Bernardino. Paris. Aurora. Sandy Hook. Trumpism and the Trumpeters.  A great beautiful wall. Gold star families. Birtherism. Basket of deplorables.  Little Marco. Lyin’ Ted.  WikiLeaks. Snowden. The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!…with their computers.  Emails. Crooked Hillary. Clinton’s Body Double…… speaking of i-Pods, especially with our political circus, I can’t help but think of the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel.

Music, i-Pods and circuses aside, I was not living in the U.S. when Sandy Hook broke the world’s heart. But I remember thinking: well, we at least have reached our Titanic moment.  Who would have thought that 20, primarily white, little, angelic faces, with their 6 heroic defenders, could not produce the needed life boats, or in this case, sensible gun control measures?

I crafted my title from the prophet Jeremiah:

My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.

Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:

“Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”

(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?”)

“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?

Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?

O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people! (Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, NRSV)


Photo Credit: Christian Peacemaker Teams

The Book of Jeremiah contains some of the most anguished, sharply harsh words in all of Scripture.  It’s important to keep in mind that the prophets of Israel, Jeremiah included, should not be thought of as social reformers or hippy, lefty social critics.  For one, they were poets.  While with Jeremiah it was “the word of the Lord” that prompted him to speak, his highly charged and emotional words help keep our present hopes, our worst fears and our continuing yearning faith real.

Jeremiah is the literature of the exiles, people who had lost their homes, future, perhaps loved ones and were simply trying to make sense of their age.  Indeed a very dark and difficult time.  Jeremiah actually shifts back and forth, between complete despair to empowering hope, from unwavering commitment to God to hot, hot, finger-wagging anger against God’s demands.

Jeremiah is actually one of my favorite books of Scripture.  It’s raw, honest, hard, revealing.  Rather than polite, superficial, fuzzy-bunny type speech, with everyone smiling, upbeat and irritatingly happy and content with cup of coffee in hand, it provides an- overwhelming- invitation to a passionate, honest relationship with the Creator… who for me, has called us to not only be a community of love and hope, but also of truth and realism.  And truth and realism is rarely do I dare say “black and white” but complex, multi-layered, confusing, complete with contradiction…complete with mystery.  When we begin to listen to words we really don’t want to hear, appearances eventually give way to reveal a breathtaking and marvelous view of God’s love and grace.  And for me, that’s the stuff of spiritual formation.


Photo Credit: Pei Ju Wang

But we need space for laments…and grief.  It seems the capacity for lament and accompanying public expressions of grief have all but disappeared.  Anything that is sad, painful and in any way distressing, is left at the door, like a coat or hat rack.  This is actually inconceivable to Jewish/Christian tradition, which recognizes that everything- good as well as bad-is within God’s sphere.  Grief then should not be outside or beyond worship space, but intimately within it.

And you know, grief also is a prophetic activity.  Too many leaders like to put a happy face on everything.  It takes a truthful prophet to have the guts to grieve a societal disaster.  With that I’m not simply talking about a September 11th or a Paris type happening.  But that is needed.  Far too many times, I become agitated with “the Left” and its inability to pause and reflect on lives lost with September 11th type of events, before automatically honing their Jeremiah type skills and ranting about US policy or needed immediate systematic changes.  I even saw “the Left’s” callousness the morning Alison Parker and Adam Ward were gunned down on live tv.

But it also takes guts to mark a disaster that does not garnish overwhelming public empathy or pity. Here’s an example: perhaps while not grief per se, can we be moved with pity and compassion towards Secretary Clinton, after viewing that cell phone video that emerged from the 9/11 memorial?  Full disclosure: I am a Bernie supporter unenthusiastically voting ‘for’ Clinton.

…..Tears are a sign of relinquishment, a letting go of false hopes and false gods or idols (whether power, reputation, status, or popularity)….an admission that we are truly in sad shape and desperately in need of deliverance.

But — grief is not the final prophetic act.  With our tears, we fully open ourselves to divine deliverance. “History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive,” Martin Luther King Jr. said at Addie Mae Collins, Carole Roberston, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair’s funeral in 1963.  The young girls died, while changing into their choir robes at the 16th Street Baptist Church, September 15, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama. “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil,” he said.


Photo Credit: Christian Peacemaker Teams

And that way, involves you and me.  Just a bit ago I said that in 2012 I thought Sandy Hook was our Titanic moment…meaning the sinking of the Titanic painfully brought the requirement that each ship carry enough life boats for all souls aboard.  But that entails leaving, abandoning ship.  Fleeing.  Fight or flight is humanity’s on going dilemma.

I also said that I embrace the contemplative heart.  The contemplative stance is the Third Way to fight or flight.  To quote Fr. Richard Rohr: “We stand in the middle, neither taking the world on from another power position nor denying it for fear of the pain it will bring. We hold the dark side of reality and the pain of the world until it transforms us, knowing that we are both complicit in the evil and can participate in wholeness and holiness. Once we can stand in that third spacious way, neither directly fighting nor denying and fleeing, we are in the place of grace out of which genuine newness can come. This is where creativity and new forms of life and healing emerge.”


Photo Credit: Christian Peacemaker Teams

What you have been viewing as I speak, is a glimpse of that creativity and new forms of life, even though the majority of it does come from what we would call Earth based traditions.  I can appreciate that this may not alleviate feelings of inadequateness.  “Don’t search for God in far lands,” Mother Teresa- or St Teresa of Calcutta- once said…”[he] is not there.  [He] is close to you, [he] is with you.  Just keep the lamp burning….Watch and pray.”  Before we can love the entire world, try to love just one other person-someone apparently unlovable, unwanted, or rejected…basically someone who simply annoys you.  That’s peacemaking too.

And for what it’s worth, I constantly fail at that- loving and embracing people within my own, personal sphere, who frankly annoy me.  Perhaps it is easier to love an unknown, distant world, even with its mean streak and nonsensical hatred.

Now my service in CPT was not always spent on a police line or in close proximity to soldiers.  In fact, just the opposite.  For instance, I co-facilitated non-violent direct action workshops in a variety of settings, for a variety of communities.  The distinction between violence and non-violence is…complex.  Here’s the definition we used:  Violence is power that Dominates, Dehumanizes, Diminishes or Destroys Ourselves, Others or Creation.  Nonviolence is power that Liberates, Humanizes, Heals and Creates Ourselves, Others or Creation.  The key is to focus on the concept of POWER, an active force that influences a situation.  In other words, violence is not an action and nonviolence is not inaction.


Photo Credit: Christian Peacemaker Teams

Of course we know that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Definitions are one thing.  Standing firm, against the current, is quite another.  I recently saw the documentary What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy.  The filmmaker is a Jewish human rights lawyer, whose family was essentially decimated during the Shoa. He said, “We’re all prone to feelings of group loyalty, a sort of tribal instinct that lumps people together, we tend to see people as victim or perpetrator, as us or them.  I understand that tribal instinct, indeed I feel it myself….but as a lawyer, I’ve learned to mistrust being swayed by such feelings, to try to avoid a tribal instinct, when it comes to dealing with issues of justice.”

Your principles and traditions embody this.  And while prophetic witness is not only as old as the Bible, it carries with it a considerable burden.  Speaking from God’s perspective should not be taken lightly. Scars, condemnation and misunderstandings do go with the territory.  What may appear clear, or apparent to supposed evidentiary standards, is, at times, no-where even close to the contradictory truth that you alone may bear. Any training, life experience, overall likeability and respect may, in the end, give way to a few seconds, minutes, or even one statement.  And, in the end, as with Yeshua, perhaps all you can do with the resulting- overwhelming- hostile scrutiny coming at you, is to respond, “You say so” (see Luke 23: 3). Or even to publicly remain silent, which will be to the amazement and wonder of many (see Matthew 27: 14; Mark 15: 4-5) and to the dismay of close friends and family members.

Because there is no room, in justice, for loyalty; there is no room, in justice, for friendship; indeed, there is no room, in justice, for love.  Justice, is truly, blind.  Now, justice and unity are rightfully intertwined.  But unity does not equal lock step formation or uniformity, but a holding of the tension between distinct individuals and the infinitely generous love of absolute communion.      

To conclude, Anna Howard Shaw, the first woman ordained in the Methodist tradition, wrote in 1888- “No man or woman has ever sought to lead his fellows to a higher and better mode of life without learning the power of the world’s ingratitude; and though at times popularity may follow in the wake of a reformer, yet the reformer knows popularity is not love.  The world will support you when you have compelled it to do so by manifestations of power, but it will shrink from you as soon as power and greatness are no longer on your side.  This is the penalty paid by good people who sacrifice themselves for others.  They must live without sympathy; their feelings will be misunderstood; their efforts will be uncomprehended. Like Paul, they will be betrayed by friends; like Christ in the agony of Gethsemane, they must bear their struggle alone…”

Remember, unmerited suffering is redemptive.  From Barriere Lake, to Elsipogtog, Grassy Narrows, Standing Rock Sioux, to Black Lives Matter and yes to the on-going, grueling, selfless- commitment by those in law enforcement who are striving to get it right, hope remains.

St. Teresa of Calcutta believed we were put on earth to do “something beautiful for God.”  We are the balm. Go and do likewise.  Selah.  Amen.


Photo Credit: Pei Ju Wang