Archive for July, 2014

Crashing The Arts

This is such a wonderful expression of collaboration I wanted to pass it along.

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Stephen’s stoning by the lynch mob in Jerusalem as told in Acts of the Apostles is a reminder of how powerful fear can be. It is as Aung Sang Suu Kyi has written, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
Time and time again, we hear the biblical stories about how those in power react out of fear whether it is Pharaoh’s fear of the Hebrews that leads to infanticide and slavery, the fear of the Hebrews in the wilderness that leads them to refuse entering the promised land the first time, or the fear of Herod over the birth of the Christ child leading once again to infanticide. Each time fear elicits a destructive reaction, which tears at the fabric of community relationships because the person or persons out of their fear attempt to control the situation and life around them, especially in a vain drive to keep a strangle hold on their own power. Yet, these fear based reactions will eventually fail because the control and the power those who use fear in destructive ways seek are mere illusions of power and control.
And, yet fear continues to exert its destructive ways through humanity, whether it is through physical violence, verbal and emotional violence or paralysis. Truly, Howard Thurman is correct, fear is one of the hounds of hell growling and nipping at the heels of humanity in so many myriad forms whether it is fear of the stranger, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of scarce resources, fear of secrets being revealed, fear of certain numbers, fear of heights, fear of falling, fear of flying, fear of age, fear of creation, fear of uncontrollable events, especially catastrophic events, as well as the fear of uncontrollable people, especially highly active little children, or the fear of uncertainty and an unknown, uncontrolled future. Even “our homes, churches, schools, governments, corporations, and prisons are crowded with people who are hounded by day and harrowed by night because of some fear lurking, ready to spring into action as soon as one is alone, as soon as the lights go out, or as soon as one’s social defenses are temporarily removed,” Thurman noted.
This is why I believe, fear is at the heart of the story of Stephen’s stoning and the stories leading up to this story. You see, the apostles and Stephen are acting in ways that are prophetic, which is to say they are speaking truths that are as unsettling to their neighbors in the first century as those told by the prophets in earlier centuries. Indeed, one might suggest the apostles and Stephen are in the tradition of “odd speakers” who speak God’s own utterances to Israel because they are compelled to speak by the Holy Spirit, speaking out of the tradition from which they emerge, speaking into the looming crisis caused by the distress, pain, and dysfunction present in their community to describe the new possibility for life God is creating in the midst of the covenant community.
Certainly, the apostles speaking out in the streets on Pentecost were calling the pilgrims who have journeyed from around the Mediterranean Basin and those living in Jerusalem to hear and see all they are experiencing as God doing a new thing, bringing new life into being just as God promised to do through the Christ, doing so in ways that no power on earth can stop. Not only do they boldly say this in the public square, but they invite people to join them in following Christ, who was put to death by the Roman government and whose resurrection proves how little power Rome, its emperor and its army has.
In many ways the apostles and Stephen are doing exactly what Moses and Aaron did in speaking to Pharaoh, except they are also, challenging the authority of the Chief Priest, all the priests and the all the temple elites, who have cut a deal with the Roman government to keep the people in line by seeking to quell revolt by zealots aimed at overthrowing Roman rule. The temple elites do this because they recognize the futility of such an armed revolt and because they fear the temple being destroyed, thus destroying their ability to worship God or to be in relationship with God, since the temple was where God resided and where proper worship with prayers and sacrifices mediated by the priests had to occur. This is the fear articulated by the Chief Priests in declaring Jesus a threat.
For the Elders of the Sanhedrin, the fear was based upon the challenge to their authority to order and discipline the community’s life in the narrow local rule allowed by the Herod and the Roman government, since time after time the apostles refuse to stop talking about Jesus as the messiah and the gospel of what God was doing in Christ, they refuse to stop healing, they refuse to stop calling for Israel to repent, to change the direction they going because it leads Israel away from God, and they keep adding more and more followers to their community, who follow the rule of the apostles. Thus, they threaten the authority and the existence of the Sanhedrin.
The people on the streets fears are raised and engaged by listening to all the debates about “these people” and who hear the populist appeals distorting what the apostles and Stephen are preaching as blasphemy that seeks to destroy their deeply held faith traditions and rituals as well as their fear about the widespread and significant changes to the status quo the followers of Christ will make. This is like the fear we experienced in the wake of 9/11. For the people on the streets, the Romans and Herod might be bad guys, but the people know what to expect and how to live within that oppressive culture.
All of this fear, including the fears Pontius Pilate held about a revolt by the people, combined to create an atmosphere where violence spiraled out of control leading to the mob taking Stephen out into the street and stoning him to death as a blasphemer. The violence began as verbal rebuke, then whippings and beatings, then into the action of the mob because there was no one, not even Rabbi Gamaliel, who could stop the highly charged fear based reaction turning anger to rage and deathly violence.
Yet, didn’t Stephen and the apostles and all those followers of Christ experience fear? Why was their reaction to what was happening so very different from the mass of people around them?
Was it as simple as their trust in God expressed by psalmist, “We wait in hope for the Lord, God is our help and our shield. In the Lord our hearts rejoice for we trust in God’s holy name, May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord, even as we put our hope in you.”
A trust that proclaims the world is “well-ordered, reliable, and a life-giving creation because God created and ordained it to be that way,” as theologian Walter Brueggemann has written. Such a life is protected by God, who is reliable, who is trustworthy and who is experienced as the One who creates life, who promotes ways for life to be sustained and who, even in the midst of suffering will come to change deathly circumstances into life. This trust does not come out of thin air or magical thinking, but is based squarely in the long storied tradition of Israel beginning with the creation of the world then moving to the creation of a people through Abraham and Sarah, the rescue of the Hebrews from Egypt, then the giving of the promised land of milk and honey to Israel then to exile from the land then to restoration back to the land, and the existence of a community despite being overrun by Greeks and Romans. Much of this long storied tradition was captured in the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings, but particularly in the psalms sung in temple and synagogue worship affirming both God’s creating life through psalms of praise, but also the psalms of lament, which contains, with two exceptions, the movement from cries of abandonment to God’s actions on behalf of the people Israel to change the situation in such a decisive way that new life, a transformed life is made possible even when such a way for life does not seem to exist and this new lived reality leads the person or community experiencing this new life to praise God and live their lives in light of this experience of God’s faithfulness and power yielding life.
I suspect they experienced all of this in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, which leads them to an affirmation that God is doing a new thing in their lives and for their lives, empowering them to transform their fear into strength because God was with them whether they lived on earth or died and lived with God eternally in resurrection. And, so they could choose their response to everything that was happening around them much the way Viktor Frankel realized he could choose his response to being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and they chose to do what Marianne Williamson speaks about when our deepest fears tell us we, “are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
It is this liberation that Stephen and apostles bring to reality through their bold, impassioned witnessing to the gospel of all God is doing in Jesus Christ no matter the cost or the struggle while at the same time inviting all who hear them and experience their testimony to join them by affirming that they too are a child of God with the light of God’s grace within them and that God intends for us to use our light to make manifest the glory of God, so others may also be liberated to let their light shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
May all our lights shine boldly and brilliantly to the glory of God’s grace and the freedom for all people to shine brightly as children of a loving and life giving God.

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