Justice, Beauty, Grace, and Other Big Words

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Praying for Justice

This Lenten season I’ve been in a small group that’s been reading the stories of Jesus leading up to the cross. Last week the story was the parable about the persistent widow, meaning a woman who had no financial means or societal protection since she was no longer provided for by a man. The widow repeatedly goes before a judge, a godless judge, and asks for justice. Give me justice! No! Give me justice! No! Give me justice! No! Finally, the judge is worn down by her persistence and gives her what she asks. He gives her justice. Jesus ends the parable by saying if even a godless judge will eventually reward persistence and give justice, God will certainly answer persistent prayers for justice, and quickly. In the group we wrestled with how some prayers seem never to be answered, let alone quickly, despite the apparent promise in the parable. We wrestled with the factor of time, persistence, why the waiting, how to be patient when to us “quickly” means a day and to God it may mean a thousand years.

The sermon that followed on Sunday focused on the same parable, and here the minister emphasized that this parable isn’t about any kind of prayer but prayers for justice. And the person needing justice isn’t just anyone but a widow, a character type used throughout scripture, along with orphans and aliens, to represent the powerless, those for whom justice is most lacking. The minister gave statistics for groups suffering injustice today: 27 million in human trafficking; 2 million kids in sex trafficking, with 1 girl per day taken from the Mall of America for that purpose, according to the FBI (disclaimer: at one time it was thought to be this number but it’s more complicated than this now with the use of cell phones and websites that lure and trap girls). Pray for justice, keep praying for these groups, he said. Don’t stop.

I went home and thought more about this, about how often I forget to pray for issues of justice, about the promise of quick responses to prayers for justice, and about those statistics. How easy it is to look at big problems and big statistics and see no movement. How easy it is to lack imagination for the effect a single prayer may have on the margins. But maybe the statistic for kids in trafficking would be 2 million minus 1 tomorrow because of my prayer this morning, and minus 10 the next day for 10 more people who prayed. Maybe that 1 or those 10 are indeed rescued quickly and miraculously. Maybe the number would be 4 million were it not for those who never fail to keep praying for justice. Maybe a prayer goes up and a girl who would have been tagged just inside the west entrance of the Mall of America instead is quickly and divinely shielded from the man who was about to tag her. The thought that a single prayer may indeed be answered quickly in terms of justice to a single powerless person creates urgency. There’s no time to waste, no day to skip.


Reading Stack: Image Journal and the Lexicon of Art and Faith

The current issue (75) of Image journal features a series of short essays on the “lexicon of art and faith” by fourteen past contributors. Each was given the assignment to think deeply about the big words that are part of that journal’s common lexicon: beauty (Erin McGraw); mystery (Robert Cording); art (Theodore L. Prescott); story (Brett Lott); presence (Julia Spicher Kasdorf); community (Kathleen Norris); human (Linford Detweiler); discipline (Jeanne Murray Walker); form (A. G. Harmon); freedom (Joel Sheesley); image (Matthew J. Milliner); incarnation (Martha Serpas); suffering (Robert Clark); word (Richard Chess).

Here are some excerpts from “The Word-Soaked World: Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith.”

Erin McGraw on beauty: “Once we’ve been in the presence of beauty, and once the more crotchety among us have batted down the strange resistance to feeling our hearts moved, we are forever vulnerable, limping like Jacob after the angel’s blessing. We know what beauty is, and from now on we will be seeking it or shrinking from it. Why should we hope to attain such a state? Why should we call it good?” You can read Erin McGraw’s essay on beauty in its entirety here.

Robert Cording on mystery: “Our time is marked by our supreme belief in Enlightenment rationality. We are all too ready to say that a word like ‘mystery’ is a nostalgia; we limit the meaning of ‘mystery’ to a quantity of the unknown, thereby opening the possibility that the inevitable acquisition of further knowledge will reduce that which is unknown and, in the future, erase the unknown entirely. A mystery is simply something to be solved--if not now, then later. But the biblical usage of ‘mystery’ (from the Greek mysterion) refers not the quantity of the unknown but rather to the quality of the known; it refers to awe rather than ignorance.”

Kathleen Norris on community: “We do not belong to a church because it’s a self-selected group of like-minded people with whom we feel comfortable. We are there because God has called us to a be a community of faith. We are called there by love, and are asked to love the people who are there, even if we may not like them very much. Hard as it is to believe, it’s this unlikely, contentious, and motley crew that God has gathered to be accountable, both to God and to one another.”

Joel Sheesley on freedom: “If freedom is something that we apprehend metaphorically rather than by definition, it means that we are ever probing to fully grasp its tenor. We are searching for it in every conceivable direction. We yearn for it. Saint Paul sensed that the whole creation is yearning for its liberation, its freedom signaled by the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of resurrection within all his followers. This freedom is no escape, but rather a reinvestment in a world undergoing transformation.”

Robert Clark on suffering: “With such words, whose etymology and resonances are so vast, so rooted and entangled, be careful that what you mean and what you intend (two more overlapping words) do not come to loggerheads. Do not tell me suffering is a blessing, for I will despair; do not tell me it is a curse, for I will despair again. Do not tell me either--since both imply God’s deliberation--for I will not know what to make of such a God at all.”

This issue also includes an interview with Luci Shaw, a poet, writer, adventurer, and overall lovely wise woman who has long been one of my role models.

Image is a quarterly literary and arts journal that publishes work that is “informed by--or grapples with--religious faith.” You can read more about it--and subscribe--here.


Giving Up Chocolate for Lent

My good friend Rebecca Kasperak has been a contributing blogger this Lenten season at the blog ExperiLent. In one of her recent posts about giving up chocolate for Lent, she writes, “Semi-sweet chocolate’s velvety texture, its minor jolt of caffeine, and my responsive endorphins light up my pleasure sensors for a brief respite and escape.” I couldn’t agree more. She goes on to examining the connections between craving and longing and grace, and suggests “cravings are arrows to grace.”

“I often approach God with a full heart and mind and schedule. I envision grace, without realizing it, as a gift that tops off my life, like non-dairy whipped cream, something partially hydrogenated that puffs up to fill in the cracks. Nothing obtrusive, you understand, but something that smoothes out the bumps. I often stumble over the truth that grace is a free gift from the consuming love of my life. This Lent, even though I’m giving up chocolate, I’m also trying to shed some hackneyed views about grace, to allow a healthy emptiness to set in, to not rush to fill it with other sweet things.”

You can read her whole post here: “Cravings crack open space – chocolate, emptiness, and grace.”


Final Word

Letters of the Scattered Brotherhood was first published in 1948. Edited by Mary Strong, the book is a collection of anonymous letters.

“The time has come for you to march against this tide of darkness and carry your lighted lamps quietly, steadily. Heal yourselves, your bodies, your characters; get out of this slough of indefiniteness and bewilderment; come in where you belong and give this tragic world the infinite qualities of the Spirit when you let it have its way with you as channels for joy, beauty, and truth.” -from Letters of the Scattered Brotherhood


Even the rocks will cry out

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I heard a sermon a couple years ago that I still think about from time to time, as I did this morning when my notes from that morning popped up. In that sermon, the minister described a pseudo-baptism scene from the movie "Nacho Libre," starring Jack Black as a Mexican priest, named Ignatio, turned wrestler, named Nacho. Nacho wants his wrestling partner baptized before their match with “Satan's Cavemen” to better increase their chance for a win and so shoves his head in a bowl of water and declares a blessing. Disclaimer: I've never seen the movie, but this link goes to a clip of the scene.

The minister said this scene should tell us there is a better way for telling others about Christ than to push them into it. He gave the example of Philip in the story from Acts and went from there to cover much good and earnest theology about being a witness for Christ and about the movement of the Spirit.

But I couldn't stop thinking about the priest shoving the guy’s head into the bowl of water. Skipping past the false theology, past the adolescent sacrilege, what does it say about the hunger for a concrete splashing of grace, the reality of the place of baptism in the human narrative? It’s like finding a hieroglyphic or prehistoric drawing showing the offering of life for life.

Even the rocks will cry out.