I won’t lie to you, I am tired.
I am weary of hearing day after day about another one falling. Men, mostly. Wealthy, powerful, influential men who somewhere along the way forgot what it is to be human among humans. Humane among others who are so very vulnerable.
And no, it’s not the news of this alone that tires me, but the realization that what I have experienced in times and places and ways which never made headlines (#metoo / #churchtoo) was in no way exceptional. Not at all. And weary, yes, at the necessity to revisit in my own heart, my own visceral memory, what happened to me when I was young. For while it has been decades ago now, you who have been there know it never really leaves you.
For oh, I remember well being a senior in college and feeling uncomfortable in the presence of a man who held power over me. I went to my supervisor in my work study job who received my story and then begged me to put my experience out in the open. Who insisted that as a student I had the power to do something about this. For it seemed that the same and much, much worse had happened to female staff all over campus. I went to my campus pastor who was pained, yes, by what I shared, but who shook his head and said some men were just this way. It was 1983. I was 22 years old. I did not know what more to do or where to go from there and so I kept my distance from him and did nothing, said nothing. But I have not forgotten.
And I will not forget what happened six years later. I was a young pastor then, still in my 20’s, when a person of power in the church did the same. First it was the questions which were too probing, too inappropriately personal. And then he touched me in a way that was unmistakable in its intent. I had found myself alone with him, yes, and vulnerable. I remember freezing. I remember walking away. And I remember doing all I could to avoid him after that. I could do this, yes, unlike so many in similar circumstances, but doing so had consequences for then I was cut off from tables of influence and opportunity. Again I did nothing, said nothing, except to a handful of close friends. It was 1989 and there was literally nowhere to go with it. (And no, I was not at all surprised to learn a decade later that there were dozens more just like me and worse…)
Indeed, I carry these experiences deep within me. And I carry those passed along to me, not of my own memory, but which shape me still…
For I remember the story of my grandmother who was widowed young with two young boys to raise. It was 1933, the heart of the depression, and there was no “safety net” to catch her and her small children. And so Beulah found the only work she could at a cigarette shop in town. And again and again and again she was propositioned (and probably much more) by married men — powerful men in the community. Prominent men who were known to be active in their faith communities. Grandma Hunt never set foot in church again. Ever. I carry her story now as a reminder of how what we do can harm one another’s faith. And what holy ground we walk on with one another.
And this. One from my own childhood. My folks were new in the community where I grew up. I was not yet 2 years old and outside with my mother. She turned her back for an instant and suddenly I was gone. Somehow she knew where to look and found me in a nearby garage surrounded by a group of teenage boys. Who knows what would have happened if her instinct and her screams of outrage had not gotten there first. Having no memory of the incident myself, I learned of this as a young adult when our family doctor retired and handed over our medical records. I remember paging through mine, skimming over reports of childhood ear infections and sore throats, when I came to this, “Janet was abducted by a group of teen-age boys. There are no obvious injuries.” Imagine my surprise! I will not soon forget the look my mother and dad exchanged when I cried out my questions. And their filling in the blanks along with this: The doctor said they could report it if they wished, but nothing would come of it. And oh, doesn’t that experience of powerlessness in the face of violation go way, way back for all of us?
And this is only my story — and only part of it at that. And not nearly as violent or as damaging or as life altering as most. Still, you can surely be confident to multiply my experience over and over and over again for most every woman you know.
And so yes, I am tired. Tired of the grief this stirs in me. Weary of having to acknowledge that it still happens. All the time. And apparently everywhere. Wondering if and when and how it will ever change. And yes, I am so yearning for the promise to come true which the prophet offers now.
Indeed, I wonder now:
- When is it that the oppressed will finally receive good news?
- When will the brokenhearted be bound up, the captives given liberty, the prisoners released?
- When will our ashes be replaced by garland?
And no, these questions are not new. Without a doubt, God’s people have been yearning for the fulfillment of these promises for a thousand life-times.
For oh, don’t we remember well the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12), to name just one, and how for much of our lives we were led to believe by popular portrayals of the story that Bathsheba was the temptress? That theirs was an affair between equals? When, in fact, to deny the King would have led to catastrophic consequences for her and those she loved. And what a travesty it is that as the story continues we only hear about David’s subsequent grief at the death of their child, but there is no word about what this must have done to Bathsheba. How her world was forever altered yet again. And how she must have carried this all of her life.
Oh, it would seem that this is the way of the world and yes, in too many ways it has been the way of the church for far too long. And at the very least it has all been aided and abetted by our silence, our embarrassment, our quiet complicity.
And so again, this Advent, surely it is all of ours to wonder when the oppressed will finally receive good news. All of them and all of us, victim and perpetrator together. For we, each and all of us, find ourselves in a system where we have somehow learned to see one another as less than human, as less than so very precious and valued, and we have adapted ourselves to this understanding and lived in the light of the values this understanding implies. Sometimes each to our own advantage. And too, too often because we have simply not known what else to do. Or haven’t had the power to do so even if we have known.
Only this is not how it is meant to be. Isaiah tells us so. And so does John the Baptist as he points to Jesus, the one yet to come. And while this is a powerfully painful time to so many… and while we might yearn for the day to come when we will be set free from having to hear and thus experience yet another story of one who has abused his power and privilege… perhaps this is the beginning of the freedom Isaiah announced and Jesus brought and will bring in all of its fullness. For in this time when truth is finally spoken might this just be the start of a time when the brokenhearted are finally bound up? And where at least in the speaking aloud of the brokenness, true healing can begin? Might this be the beginning of God’s powerful promises coming home?
We cannot know for sure, not yet, but for now it may be our best hope for the sort of world Isaiah prophesies and John promises in Jesus.
And if in the meantime we find ourselves tired, well, that is probably to be expected and even in our weariness perhaps we can reinforce the hope that is still ours by simply holding one another up. By listening deeply to each other’s stories and seeking first to understand. And yes, surely by being among those who seek to shape the new world promised to us now: a world where all people, where ALL people, are treated with the respect and love due God’s own beloved.
For the coming of Jesus is about reversing all that would harm God’s Own. And that means all of us. And all of them. And all of them and all of us together.
Amen. May this be so. May this finally be so. Amen.
- I offer here my own small window into how I understand the yearning which meets the promises of Isaiah today. There are a thousand other windows shaped by racial oppression, poverty, addiction, abuse… What is yours?
- How does your own experience give you empathy and understanding for that which others experience?
- How might that yearning shape your proclamation this week?