February 2018

February 27: WHY

In August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a group of African American jazz musicians tells stories between rehearsals. One tells about a cousin of his -- a minister -- whose sister was desperately sick in Atlanta, so he took a train to visit her. The train stopped at a little south Georgia town to take on water, so the minister got off the train to use the bathroom. He was told “colored people can’t use the toilet here, you go use the outhouse.”

So he went to the outhouse and while he was there the train left the station. There’s the minister standing on the station platform—no train, no friends.

Across the tracks he sees a group of hostile-looking young white men. Not wanting trouble, the minister  starts walking up the railway track, but the men follows him and demand to know what he is doing. He tells them he is a minister on his way to visit his sick sister. He shows them his bible and cross and explains how the train left him behind.

“No matter, dance for us,” they demand. “Why don’t you dance for us?”

Someone pulls out a pistol and begins firing at the ground to make him dance.

The one telling the story says, “Can you imagine that….can you believe that they did that to a man of God?”

One of the other musicians says, “What I can’t believe is that if he were a man of God, why did God let them do it to him?  If he was God’s own man, why didn’t God bring down fire from heaven to destroy those crackers?”

“Where was God?”  

“Why did God let this happen?”

Those are the questions that have been asked in the communities of Newton, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland, and many others across our nation.

I have given up asking why such bad things happen because I already know. We all know. We don’t like to admit it, but we know. We may not know the specifics of why a 20-year-old would want to shoot kindergarten students or a 19-year old would gun down his former classmates. I don’t think I’ll ever know or understand that, but I know it’s ultimately because God gave us freedom. We have the freedom to hurt and heal, legislate and abdicate, bind up and tear down. We have the freedom to work to fix problems and we have the freedom to ignore the problems and watch them get worse. We have freedom.

Was that wise? Was that foolish? That is not for me to say, but it was courageous to give God’s creatures the freedom to obey or rebel, to love or to hate. That freedom is what has allowed horrible atrocities throughout history. It is that freedom which has allowed for the persistence of evil. That freedom is also what has allowed true love and generous acts of kindness and goodness into this world. Without that freedom, God would be a tyrant and we would be slaves, incapable to choose love, incapable of mercy, incapable of justice. Choice is necessary. Choice allows for the possibility, the persistence, of evil in our world, and God is determined not to be a tyrant who takes that freedom away.

Sometimes we just want God to stop all evil from happening.

Theologian Douglas John Hall says “gods who prevent evil and set everything to rights can only do so by overruling the behavior of that one creature that creates more havoc than any other: ourselves.”

Sometimes we complain of God’s failure to act godlike -- to exercise unmitigated power -- “Where were you, why did you let this happen?” That would take away our own freedom and that is not the power of God.

For God to preserve the existence of free creatures and the redemption of the world, God is obliged by God’s own love to exercise God’s power “quietly, subtly, and, usually, responsively in relation to the always ambiguous and frequently evil deeds of us free creatures.”

In other words, God must labor to bring existing wrong into the service of good. It’s a long battle, and it means God must suffer, too. The cross of Christ was a response to our sin, our violence, our choices, not a plan from the beginning of time. God loves us enough to take on our sufferings, to die for our life, to ultimately defeat evil though its presence is still felt and still hurts.

Is that especially comforting when you’ve just lost your child or your spouse? No, I imagine not.

There aren’t really any comforting words that can be said in those moments. Platitudes like “God just needed another angel” or “God never gives you more than you can handle” are not only wrong on so many levels, but hurtful and make God into a capricious and selfish deity.

What is comforting, I believe, is the message, the proclamation, the truth that God is still here for us. God is working to make good out of evil, fighting to keep evil at bay, and taking on as much suffering for us as God can, and even now raising to new life what was once lost. It may not be comforting the first day or the hundredth, but faith finds a way to shine a light in the darkness.

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker


February 19: Giving Up is Hard to Do

Every year during Lent, many Christians talk about giving something up. It’s often something like Facebook, chocolate, or some other indulgence. But Lent is a good time to really think about giving up, because one of the hardest things about following Christ is giving up.

We use words like commitfollowjoincome, and serve.

If you follow, you also leave something behind. In order to receive a gift, your hands have to be empty. What do you have to let go of in order to receive whatever it is you truly need?

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to give up, to let it go, turn it over, to surrender. We believe surrender always means weakness. Surrender has a secret, though: surrender is strength in disguise. It takes courage to give in. It takes courage to say yes to one thing, knowing it means saying no to something else. It takes courage to stop doing what you've always done, stop believing what you've always believed, stop defining yourself and others the way you always have before.

What do you hold on to? Do you hold on to your guilt, perfection, power, security, popularity, traditions, or comfort, to just name a few?

What did Moses have to give up to become a great prophet and deliverer? Home, family, power, comfort, safety.

What did the disciples choose to give up when they decided to follow Jesus? Home, family, livelihood, tradition, control.

What did Saul give up when he decided to start a new life as an Apostle named Paul? Tradition, old anger, long-held religious beliefs, power, safety.

Following Christ is not easy and it is not all about receiving. It is also about giving up, and that is hard. G.K. Chesterton said, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."

Chesterton was very influential on C.S. Lewis, who wrote in Mere Christianity,

Now we cannot...discover our failure to keep God's law except by trying our very hardest (and then failing). Unless we really try, whatever we say there will always be at the back of our minds the idea that if we try harder next time we shall succeed in being completely good. Thus, in one sense, the road back to God is a road of moral effort, of trying harder and harder. But in another sense it is not trying that is ever going to bring us home. All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, 'You must do this. I can't.

What must you give up to follow Christ? If you can name it, God can help you. God does not leave us alone to do this. God helps us, because God's favorite word is with. God is with us, just as God was with Moses, and the disciples, and Saul, and so many others. We follow Christ, but we are not left behind to follow in footsteps. God is with us. God is with you.

What will you give up to follow Christ? Not just during Lent but during your lifetime? Maybe it’s pride or privilege or certainty. Maybe it’s self-righteousness or comfort. Maybe you’ll give up the comfort of just sending thoughts and prayers in the wake of injustices. It’s Lent. It’s a good time to start giving up.

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker


February 12: Prayer for Ash Wednesday and Lent

Reclaimed by Reformed churches in the last few decades, Ash Wednesday is the entry point for Lenten preparation. It is a service rich in ritual and symbolism. Participants on Ash Wednesday come forward for a minister or elder to mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross in ashes, saying the words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” from Genesis 3:19. With these words, disciples are reminded of their mortality and, when combined with the sign of the cross, they are also reminded of the hope of the resurrection.

Christians do not receive the sign of the cross to attract attention or to be noticed by others; they receive the sign of the cross to focus on who they are as human beings, bound in death and life to Christ. Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent provide time to explore the mystery at the heart of the gospel that being a Christian means a new life through Christ.

The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on February 14th this year.   Lent is the period of 40 days, not including Sundays, prior to Resurrection Sunday. The word "lent" comes from the Latin word for "lengthen," because the days of Lent occur during the springtime of the year, when the daylight hours increase. The period consists of 40 days because the number 40 represents a period of completeness in the Bible: Moses and the people of Israel were in the wilderness for 40 years; Jesus was tempted in the desert for 40 days.  Since the days of the early church, in the decades and centuries after the death and Resurrection of Christ, Christians have regarded the period of Lent as a time for repentance and reflection. Derry invites you to observe a Lenten discipline of repentance and drawing close to God. Pray this prayer asking God to help you turn toward God and stay with God from Ash Wednesday to Easter, to our own death and resurrection.

Truly dust we are, and to dust we shall return;

and truly yours we are, and to you we shall return.

Help this to be a time of turning round and beginning again.

Through the forty days of Lent, help us to follow you

and to find you: in the discipline of praying

and in the drudgery of caring

in whatever we deny ourselves,

and whatever we set ourselves to learn or do.

Help us to discover you

in our loneliness and in community,

in our emptiness and our fulfilment,

in our sadness and our laughter.

Help us to find you when we ourselves are lost.

Help us to follow you on the journey to Jerusalem

to the waving palms of the people’s hope,

to their rejection, to the cross and empty tomb.

Help us to perceive new growth

amid the ashes of the old.

Help us, carrying your cross, to be signs of your Kingdom.  Amen

(by Jan Sutch Pickard, in Traveling to Easter with Jesus as our Guide)

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker