lenten journal: telling stories


    I spent the morning and early afternoon at the Third Annual Jack Crum Conference on Prophetic Ministry at Avent Ferry United Methodist Church in Raleigh. My primary connection to the event was through my friendship with Ryan Rowe, who is a member of the church and the organizer of this year’s conference. He asked me to help with the food.

    The conference is named for a former pastor of the church who was responsible for helping the church to galvanize its identity in the midst of the civil rights struggle. In 1958, they were meeting in a dairy barn that belonged to a rich benefactor. The church was an all white congregation. Crum invited James Lawson, an African-American and fellow Methodist, to come a preach. The man who owned the barn, and who was also going to donate land to let them build a church, said if Lawson came he would evict them and take back his land.

    Ryan read part of the sermon Crum preached the following Sunday, prior to Lawson taking the pulpit. “Money cannot buy our witness,” he said. And then he repeated himself. Then Crum went on to say the second galvanizing principle was to stand against those who were wrong but “to love them in the midst of their wrongness.” “Speaking the truth without love,” said Crum, “is not Christian.”

    And then, fifty-three years later, James Lawson himself stepped once again into the pulpit of Avent Ferry UMC. This man who went on from that Sunday in 1958 to pastor in India, to study with followers of Gandhi, to help found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to train civil rights activists in nonviolent actions, to ride in the last stages of the Freedom Rides when the early riders had been beaten down, to pastor in Memphis and work with Martin Luther King to organize the sanitation workers stood up today to stand with those working to keep a well integrated and successful school system in Raleigh from being taken apart by forces reminiscent of those who opposed him fifty years ago. He spoke with a gentle and calm authority, not as one who had something to prove nor as a hero in the fading light, but as one who knew how to speak the truth in love and still had some truth to speak.

    He talked about how hard it is to read the gospel stories of Jesus because we find it hard to let him be human, to really see him in the stories. “If you want to understand the stories of Jesus,” he said, “read a biography of Gandhi or Martin Luther King.” The fact that we were sitting in a room with no stained glass windows seemed perfect to me in that moment: he was calling us to see in new and clear images.

    His words reminded me of something I read in Nathan Brown’s book, Letters to a One-Armed Poet, which chronicles his grief in the loss of one of his best friends. In a piece called “Nip and Tuck,” he writes,

    I’ve buffed out so many scratches and dings in the paint of our stories, I now worry about their cosmetic integrity.

    At the same time, “the truth” has always felt like salty taffy in my mouth – the way it yanks on loose teeth and takes forever to digest. And “the facts” of any matter seldom make people lean forward in their customary seats . . . seats on the front rows of lives that are filled enough already with the hassle and boredom of “what actually happened.”

    Right now I’m reading The Great Gatsby with my American Literature class at school – me for about the tenth time, they for the first. Though I’ve read it with students several times, I’ve also reread it four or five times on my own because I am captured by the writing and the way the story unfolds. No matter now many times I read it, there is always something new to find there.

    I love to tell the story
    for those who know it best
    seem hungering and thirsting
    to hear it like the rest

    So sings one of my favorite hymns. Thinking about what Lawson had to say this morning, what Gatsby thinks about looking across the water at Daisy’s green light, what Nathan meant by “buffing and shining,” I wonder what are the stories of Jesus – the ones with the scratches and dents of humanity and hope?

    We’ve often done a pretty good buffing job on the gospels over the years to make them fit nicely into our anthology of culture and faith. We can talk, for instance, about the gruesomeness of the Crucifixion and focus on Jesus’ suffering because he died for us and also, perhaps, because we don’t have to feel it firsthand. When the call of the story is for compassion and voluntarily taking on the pain of the poor and marginalized, we’ve move more quickly to metaphor. When it’s something we can’t fit comfortably into our categories, we explain it away as being added by church tradition or later inserts. When it comes to our weekly lectionary readings, we just skip over the hard parts. The prospect of a “taffy” truth that leaves us toothless and disquieted is more than we want to face on most days.

    I was reading Marcus Borg’s blog tonight, looking for information on his new book, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored, and found these words:

    But he was not a secular social revolutionary. He was God’s revolutionary. And God’s passion – what God is passionate about, according to Jesus – is for an earth in which swords are beaten into plowshares, in which nations do not make war against nations anymore, in which every family shall live under their own vine and fig tree (not just subsistence, but more than subsistence), and no one shall make the afraid (Micah 4.1-4, with close parallel in Isaiah 2.1-4). This was the passion of Jesus, and for Christians, Jesus is the revelation of God’s passion.

    Violent revolution? No. Non-violent revolution? Yes.

    Of course, Jesus and the Bible are also personal as well as political. Of course. But we have not often seen the political meaning of Jesus and the Bible. It is there – and once one sees it, it is so obvious. Not to see it is the product of habituated patterns of thought, or of willful blindness.

    Jesus was (and is) not about endorsing the rule of domination systems that privilege the wealthy and powerful. Jesus was (and is) about God’s passion for a very different kind of world.

    Yes, and we have church buildings and jobs and families and debts and obligations and other stuff we want to do. In the jukebox that is my mind, I cue the Beatles:

    you say you want a revolution
    well you know we don’t want to change the world

    My friend Burt called tonight while I was cooking dinner. We’ve been close friends since college – a long time ago, now. It had been awhile since we talked, so we both had stories to tell along with new scratches and dents to share. When we were younger, we thought we would change the world.

    I think there’s still time.


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