Occasionally churches in the area invite me into their pulpit for a Sunday to share a sermon about the religious peacebuilding work that I do overseas, which is recognized as an ordained ministry of my denomination, the United Church of Christ. Here is an example of the way I reflect on my day job in the context of a sermon.
Waiting for Yahweh
Isaiah 40: 21-31
September 27, 2009
The summer after I completed seminary I worked as a hospital chaplain. One of the units I was assigned to was the neurological ICU. It was a place teeming with tragedy and with grace, where the vulnerability of life was thrown into sharp focus every day. The patients had suffered brain bleeds, aneurysms, strokes — conditions that seized upon them unexpectedly, leaving them comatose or brain dead. Sometimes the patients got better, and as they did, they were moved out of the ICU and onto a regular floor, so that if I wanted to follow-up with them after a weekend away, I’d have to find them in the hospital labyrinth. Occasionally when I found them, the patient would have no idea who I was, even if I had spent an hour or two by their bed singing and praying when they first came in, when they were out of it. Herb was that way. A few days earlier he’d come in with a stroke, all out of sorts and confused. I’d prayed with him and his daughter. When I returned to the hospital a couple days later I went to visit him on a regular admit floor. He was lucid now, but didn’t recognize me. Straining to make a connection, he said: “Reverend, I got no idea who you is or what all you said to me the other day. But, uh, I think I did meet your boss.” I raised my eyebrow at him. “You mean, God?” I replied, not sure if it was he or I making the joke. “No, no.” said Herb. “Not God. This guy was taller and thinner.” Bob. He’d meant my colleague Bob in the chaplain’s office. But Herb’s image of God managed to lodge itself in my mind, so that now whenever I try to picture God, I think of a short, squat man. A little like Danny Devito. But grayer hair.
That’s not the image of God I started with. The one from my childhood is more like the one from our Isaiah passage today – the architect-ruler up in heaven, weaving and placing and watching and loving and, yes, judging. And doing it all without his long white flowing beard getting in the way.
Now. All us enlightened UCCers know that all these images of God are just metaphors, right? We speak these descriptive adjectives about God into the air and then they just disappear, unable to complete the impossible task we call them to do – unable to fully capture our ineffable God. Yet still the poets and painters and parents and us UCCers try. And we are goaded on by our Biblical ancestors like Isaiah who used many and contradictory ways to describe God.
As long as we don’t mistake any illustration for God Godself, as long as we approach these descriptions as pathways to or glimpses of that great profound love we call God, then we can get something from them. So let’s give our brother Isaiah here the benefit of the doubt. What do we learn from this illustration of God as tender loving constructor of this here earthly collage?
What strikes me is not just how God is described, but how we are described as grasshoppers. Isaiah is employing a common trick here: comparing humanity and God, the divine order and the human order, in juxtaposition. By seeing ourselves beside God, we can see all that God is. We are grasshoppers to God. God is immense.
But this passage also says that though we are tiny compared to the bigness of God, we are not inconsequential. God sees us, and we are called to see ourselves in the way God sees us: Each of us little ones with our own names. Each in our own place. Each of us facing death with heaven unfolding before us, each of us urged to take hold of the preciousness of life.
Jim asked me to share a bit today about what I do for a living. I work as a program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace. USIP is a congressionally-funded organization that seeks to strengthen the world’s capacity to deal with conflict non-violently. It was born from the work of many peace activists, including many faith-driven activists, who urged the government to create an academy of peace to educate policy makers and diplomats in conflict resolution. An academy to balance out all those military academies that train people in warfare. Within USIP, I work in the Religion and Peacemaking program. This program seeks to strengthen the capacity for religious leaders and communities to build peace in conflict zones. I work in Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Colombia. And in these very different places, I see similar things. I see a lot of suffering. There is poverty, perpetual grieving, fear, exhaustion. And there are those armed actors who do it again and again: they run from the negotiating table back to their guns. I see rulers who fail to acknowledge how everyone has a hand in the unceasing violence, and so they keep blaming the other side. Those who insist that this time it will work, this time the battle will be won. I see divisions between people, whether on lines of religion or race or politics, sharpened in the midst of insecurity, becoming the dividing lines of hatred or violence, the lines across which insults and threats and accusations and bombs are thrown. And sometimes I see religious leaders and good people of faith bless violence as a necessary evil. Heresy to some of us sitting in these quiet pews, perhaps, but not so to those who are suffering and who want some sense of security to protect their family, to defend their dignity. Remember that political violence is always understood as an act of justice by its supporters. It is presented as either a means to correct some past injustice, or as the only viable option to achieve a more just peace. Remember how often the language of God and of righteous values is used to frame violence as a justice issue around the world, and here in the U.S. This is not a modern phenomenon. Our Bible is rife with accounts of battling religious narratives in the war zone – those that legitimate the forces of violence, and those that call for peace. Those advocating inter-communal hospitality, and those condemning to hell other religious and ethnic communities. All in the name of the same God – in other words in the name of what is ultimately right and good. It’s an age-old, world-wide thing.
It is in these sorts of situations where my program works most. Places where religion has been used to fuel conflict, to justify violence, to drive communities apart. Nigeria, where Christian and Muslims fight each other. Sri Lanka, where Buddhist monks bless war to protect the Buddhadharma. Iraq, where some Sunni and Shia condemn each other as a heretical form of Islam, but then come together to condemn the minority religious traditions. In these places, we nurture religious narrative to fuel healing, reconciliation, and peace. In these places, we work with religious communities to create constituencies of peace, to reach across divides, and to leverage their power to pursue conflict transformation through various means. We promote understandings of and descriptions of our great indescribable God that motivate a nonviolent, just peace – a way to address that community’s often legitimate justice concerns through nonviolent collective action. In all of it, I am reminded constantly that how we attempt to describe God, and what it leads us to do, matters. Particularly in a context of violence where people are struggling to determine how to act, what is right. It matters.
So let’s return to Brother Isaiah. What does Isaiah tell us about God, and what might that lead us to do or not do in the context of violence? After describing his creator God on high, Isaiah says that those who wait for Yahweh shall have their strength renewed. I love the poetry of this phrase — waiting for Yahweh – but how might it speak to those in conflict? Does waiting for Yahweh mean waiting it out – standing idly by until the bullets run out? I don’t think so. I can tell you that when I have glimpsed God moving through the battlefields, it is a call to action that has followed in the wake. Let me tell you some stories.
In Sri Lanka, there is a minority Tamil man who lives in the northeast. I met him in 2006. He was a doctor, until his hospital was bombed. He rebuilt it and it was destroyed by another bomb. He cannot go to the market most days because of the overbearing presence of security forces, mostly from the Sinhala majority, who harass him. But still, he speaks to me of those times when he has come together with the Sinhala in his community, and created alternative local markets. He speaks of Muslim neighbors who have helped him rebuild his house. He points to these examples, and says this is why I keep going. Because the bombs aren’t the last word, because I have glimpsed peace in moments and so I have hope. In Colombia, I meet them every time I go: women who have been displaced by the violence, forced out of their homes by guns wielded by the right-wingers or the left-wingers or maybe the government forces. Now they are settled temporarily in communities that don’t always welcome the squatters. These women who have lost husbands, sons, daughters, to the fighting and who come together to make things out of red and orange and blue thread – purses and bracelets. And as they weave they talk about their trauma. And they heal together. And they refuse to give into the violence, and they keep reaching out to other women and expanding their circle.
These peacemakers tell me this: amidst all the heartache and turmoil, there is something big and eternal to hold onto, and it emerges in moments of insistent grace. If you are looking, you will see these moments in the midst of the bombs. They are quiet, but they are there. The doctor in Sri Lanka and the women in Colombia see these moments, and so they know better than to believe that the forces of injustice and war control everything. They have witnessed how what is good and what is life-giving and peaceful can resist and prevail amidst death and cynicism and war. They have seen the world from God’s view, and they know that worldly power looks different from above – that those who hold guns and squabble over political or economic power are grasshoppers to our great immense God. And because these survivors have seen what is already happening, and because they see what is possible, they do the work to make it so. Thank God for this. After all, if these activists didn’t see these moments, they might not believe in resurrection — the ultimate victory of life over death. They might see just the bombs and believe that is what is inevitable. And that is enough to make anyone weary.
Maybe it is just these peacemakers who Isaiah is speaking about — those who see the moments of grace around them. These people who are not just waiting idly for Yahweh, but who are looking for Yahweh to arrive around them; those who are watching for those pockets of grace and resistance to bubble up in the world, who so see when the Kingdom of God peeks out at them from the cracks torn open by violence. And what they see serves as not only their manna – their infinite source of energy — but also the place where they plant their feet to begin to tug out heaven, and create peace.
So what can us grasshoppers do from here? Remember, in the end, that it is rarely the powerful of the world who make history progress forward toward God. Jesus. Gandhi. In their time, they were not the worldly powers. We can barely recall the names of those rulers. We remember the names of the weak victors: the executed carpenter come teacher. The young preacher from Atlanta. The youth in Serbia who brought down a dictator. These are the ones who transform history. The small ones who saw the hand of God at work, placed themselves in the middle of that hand, and moved forward, their strength renewed, their source of energy infinite. They walked forward to confront the worldly powers of violence without fainting. God sees these little ones as much as God those little ones who wield guns. The question is, what do each of us see? Are we looking for Yahweh? Are we watching for the moments of grace percolating up and moving toward them? Are we putting our faith in those moments and then putting our hands in them to massage them out? What are all of us waiting for?
Have you not heard, have you not seen, has it not been told you from the beginning?
Take comfort in your smallness, little grasshoppers. Take comfort that though you are small, you are embraced by a huge profound love, capable of greatness. Allow yourself to rise up and perch beside our squat, round God above the circle of the earth, looking down. See how delicate our beautiful blue floating globe is, and all those grasshoppers in it – each one in its place, each one precious. And then see the places where heaven is emerging from our cracked earth, the places where you can sweep down, plant your feet, and begin to do your holy work.