O Come Emmanuel: After November 8th, 2016

We look around at our world right now and there is so much that breaks hearts, plays on fears, and isolates those who are different than ourselves.

Many this week legitimately question if they are really welcome in this country or their communities. Others rightly fear if they are safe in a world where violent protests follow the outcome of a lawful and legitimate election.

On the right and the left, you are weary of being labeled all kinds of evil just because of the political party you vote for. Many of us are confused, for our understandings of the world and our competing narratives of facts can’t fully account for the polarizing and angry actions or thoughts of our peers, our neighbors, our family members, or our fellow countrymen. 

Some are wondering if anyone is left who will stand up for us and our hurts and wounds. Loss, of all kinds, rises to the surface only to pour out into the streets and onto our screens exposing our inner pain. Others finally feel vindicated, only to discover that power does not shield you from the sting of criticism. Victory, it turns out, may not be so sweet when it is bought at a price.

Most ponder if we could have done something, anything, long before November 8th, to have helped make this country less divisive, less reactionary, less hateful; more understanding, more empathetic, and more kind.

We are a bruised and bruising people, searching for some guidance in the midst of our collective pain.

It’s been a difficult week in this country. Sadly, there may be many more yet to come.

But the real truth is that there is a Healer seeking to bind our wounds; there is a true Savior who can and will redeem us in the midst of all this mess.

Come, let us adore Him. Hallelujah!

 

Postures We Use: Colin Kaepernick, National Solidarity, and the Wounded in Worship

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Last Sunday I sat through the entire church service.  This might not sound that strange to you, but I attend an Anglican communion where constant change of posture is commonplace as part of our liturgical worship.  Yet at thirty-three weeks pregnant with our third child in three years, I wasn’t feeling quite up to full participation in the usual ways of standing, kneeling, and constantly changing positions throughout the service.

As I sat still while others moved, I marveled at the freedom of bodily expression in worship we enjoy as Anglicans, especially in the confines of a predetermined liturgy.  Sit or kneel.  Stand or sit.  Come forward or stay where you are.  Raise your arms in song or stand still.  Partake in communion or cross your arms for a blessing.

So many ways to be united in worship; so many ways to fellowship together.

Colin Kaepernick started a national controversy when he choose to sit for the playing of the national anthem at NFL games.  Some identify with his reasoning and have joined him in various acts of solidarity.  Others are appalled by his choice and his perceived message of disrespect and openly choose make their displeasure known.  I’d rather we first take a step back and question why we expect others to stand united in the first place, and what it means when people choose to act differently during public acts of solidarity.

Our bodies are vessels of human expression. If you have ever had the pleasure of traveling overseas, working within a community of non-English speakers, or interacting with children too young to speak, you likely know just how effective body language and expression can become as a tool for communication.  We can have entire conversations without speaking a single word.  Waves, smiles, frowns, pointing, jumping, dancing, hugging, tugging, kneeling – all these actions and so many more communicate something to the world around us.  Our bodies are vessels of human expression.

Posture can wound. Unfortunately, because our bodies are used as a form of speech, they can be used to hurt others.  Yes, through physical violence toward one anther but also – more simply – in our choice of gestures or posture.  Crossing our arms, literally turning our backs, walking away, giving the finger, these are all ways that people use their movements to communicate something negative, offensive, or obscene.

Likewise, we can use different postures to wound ourselves.  This often occurs through uses of our body which violate our conscience, undermine God’s intended good for us, or belittle our existence and self-worth. Consider the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and how they understood that to kneel before a false idol would both wound the honor of God and wound their own belief and testimony in Him.  Unlike that silly adage goes, words most certainly can hurt and so too can the ways we use our bodies to speak to the world around us.  Posture can wound.

Posture can heal.  The good news is that while we can use our posture to hurt others, we can also choose to use our bodies as vessels to help heal ourselves and those around us. Be it through physical touch, open arms, or a stirring sign of humility, surrender, or love, the ways we choose to move about this earth can touch hearts for the better.  Like many forms of healing, these physical expressions of positive communication don’t always come easy or without conflict.  As a reflection of divine love, sometimes the act that brings healing can first bring a healthy or necessary form of pain.

Perhaps there is no better expression of this form of healing love than the symbol of Christ’s posture on the cross.  Arms nailed open to the world, His pain (and the pain of our sin) became a crucial precursor to His victory.  Each time a follower of Christ finds themselves in prayer and worship reaching out their arms like those upon the cross – be they standing, sitting, or lying down prostrate – they both embody that pain and that victory at the same time.  Be it to address a need for a personal victory over sin or in contrition for relational or societal hurts, postures such as this touch hearts through both experience and witness.  Posture can heal.

Posture is powerful. Since posture can both wound and heal, it is a vital part of how we live together in a society.  Many of our postures we take for granted.  Yet even when we are not intentional about how we use our bodies, we still speak volumes in each moment of the day.  When we pass other people on the street or in an elevator do we look them in the eye and smile, or do we keep our heads down and eyes averted?  It is remarkable how just tiny adjustments in our our body language can impact those around us, or even our own hearts, for better or worse.

For example, when we choose to kneel in prayer it is an act of submission.  To do so communicates to our hearts that we are choosing to come before God with surrender and reverential fear, and it communicates to those around us that we are choosing to make ourselves lesser before the One who is greater, often uniting the body of Christ in a common act of humility.

The physical act of kneeling not only prepares us for our times of prayer or confession, but it can also be a crucial part of the prayer, or even a prayer in and of itself.  Moreover, when done in public, kneeling in prayer acts as a sign to remind the community of our place before God and to point us all back to the heart of His glory and grace.  Posture is powerful.

Posture demands authenticity.  Because of the very power entailed in how we use our bodies, it is important to use our bodies truthfully.  We can lie with our bodies just like we can lie with our tongues.  This means that when I fake a smile, a hug, or a salute, I lie.  It might be a small lie, we might classify many of these actions as white lies, but it doesn’t change the fact that I am still expressing an untruth.

There are certainly situations when we will choose to use our bodies in a way that doesn’t perfectly match how we feel, and this isn’t always the same thing as a lie.  In fact, some of the most powerful uses of our bodies come through disciplined acts, like the decision to kneel in prayer even when we feel rebellious, angry, confused, or full of doubt.  By intentionally and willfully choosing to be disciplined to a specific kind of service, act of worship, or to a reverential commitment, regardless of our shifting emotions, we are still true to that higher goal with our bodies even when our hearts are wary or rebellious. Marriage, I am learning, is full of such moments.

However, there are many more times when we do not intentionally honor a prior choice or commitment.  Rather, we just move in ways that are contrary to our authentic selves.  Perhaps it is out of routine, perhaps it is out of disappointment, or fear, or vanity, or manipulative motives, but when we tell lies with our bodies we wound.  It reminds me of an old Casting Crowns song:

Are we happy plastic people
Under shiny plastic steeples
With walls around our weakness
And smiles to hide our pain
But if the invitation’s open
To every heart that has been broken
Maybe then we close the curtain
On our stained glass masquerade

When we hide the truth of our hearts, when we use our bodies just to play a role or to convey a false image, we cut off the potential for healing to occur.  By doing untrue things with our body we choose to wound ourselves and our wider community with our lies.  Being “happy plastic people”, for example, can help to maintain a certain image or comfort level for the fellowship of a church as we all follow along and act exactly as everyone else does.  Sit together.  Stand together.  Shake hands together.  Smile on cue together.

There is an element of these programed movements that even appears on the surface to build solidarity and unity, but for the sake of what exactly? For the sake of a lie.  When there is no room for our communal traditions to be broken, for one or many individuals to question, to doubt, to cry out, or to act differently when in public, there is no room for healing to occur.  And where healing cannot occur, wounds will fester and painful divisions will take hold.  Posture demands authenticity.

Where just one is hurting, we all hurt with them.  Church, where we go to commune with Christ and His children, is meant to be a safe place to express our innermost thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.  It is meant to be a place where we can show great devotion and love, but also great doubt and sorrow.

I can’t tell you how many times I have sat in church and questioned.  Questioned God’s love, questioned my purpose and worth, questioned the nature of the church and the evil of mankind.  And because I have questioned, I have sometimes sat still while others stood.

I have wept while others sang out with joyful hope.  I have lain prostrate while others danced.  There have been entire seasons – weeks, months at a time – where I chose to not receive communion as an intentionally outward sign of my inner struggles.  When I do these actions, all crucial aspects of authenticity in posture, I do so to be vulnerable before God and within my community.  I do so with the heart of healing, even in the midst of my anguish.

When I or others display our weaknesses, doubts, or brokenness with our bodies it is not meant to invalidate the more joyful or reverential behavior of the rest of the community.  Rather, it is about finding ways to still be a part of our community even while we struggle.  It is about still trying to know God, even when we honestly question his very existence or goodness.

Crucially, my times of sitting out or using my body in ways that differ from others in worship aren’t – first and foremost – about the truth of my grievances.  They are about the truth of my heart.  God is good, all the time.  But more than once in my life I have not seen or felt His goodness.  When you wrestle with that question it can be over-powering.  Anger, fear, resentment, sorrow, and endless streams of questions pour forth.  How we choose to reveal our internal struggles with our bodies or our words won’t change the truth of who God is.  But the more authentic we are in our posture, the more likely we are – in time – to encounter His healing touch and come to know his genuine goodness.

If we hide from our grief and our doubt, choosing instead to go through the motions and not acknowledge our true thoughts and feelings, we risk never finding the answers we need most.  Moreover, we limit our opportunities to build stronger and more authentic relationships and communities.  Lament, while often deeply personal, can also be powerfully communal.

When I am honest about my heart, most visibly through my posture, it offers the chance for others to come along side me to help.  Perhaps they will grieve or question along with me.  Perhaps they will respectfully challenge me.  Perhaps they will encourage me.  Perhaps they will pray for and with me. But, when done with love and grace, a healthy community always welcomes our differences in action for they understand that these postures offer a starting place for all of us to heal and grow stronger.  Where just one is hurting, we all hurt with them.

So if I am free to question God through how I use my body, why can’t Colin Kapernick – or anyone else for that matter – question our country through their choice of posture during a national moment of solidarity?  Surely the act of honoring God is far higher than honoring a country, no matter how much we may love our home.  If God does not demand a robotic allegiance to him through our posture then we should not demand it for the sake of our nation.

This is not to say it is wrong to choose en-mass to show respect and love for country and all that means to us through standing during songs or placing hands over our hearts during a pledge.  Just because one, or even millions, reveal their authentic doubt about the problems we face as a nation doesn’t mean that all people in that moment must stop do the same, or even feel the same toward the country that they love.

Neither does it mean that those who choose not to stand do so because they hate their country.  I may doubt God at times but I still love Him in my weakness.  To search for God, to be truthful regarding our questions about God, is to love Him.  Why should it be considered any different in how we choose to love our country?

Moreover, it matters how we reveal our true selves through the public display of our bodies.  I said that posture wounds, but do actions like Kaepernick’s actually wound our country, or more specifically our veterans?  I am not sure there is anything inherently offensive, aggressive, or hateful about choosing to sit while others stand.  Especially, perhaps, when it was originally done without fanfare or grandstanding, but instead quietly as a matter of personal conscience.    If anything is rightly wounded by his actions it is our sense of solidarity.

But where our societal unity is built on lies, it does not actually exist.  So when, say, a large group of Americans question if their country is a safe or equal place for them to dwell, yet they are told to hide those emotions in public so they won’t risk offending the majority, our country is made weak.  We are made weak because we are not truthful.  It doesn’t matter at the outset if you think their grievances are real or justified, what matters is that they do not believe that they belong.  What matters is that they are hurting.

If what we desire is to be stronger or more unified as a nation, we can achieve those ends exactly through authentic moments like Kaepernick’s choice to sit.  In so doing he chose to signify with his body the true state of our lack of solidarity as a nation.

And even if his posture was unquestionably offensive and meant to wound, like standing up with his middle finger extended toward the flag, how then should we respond?  Well, if someone did a similarly offensive act in the middle of a church service directed at the cross how would you respond? Would you glare with judgmental distaste and disapproval?  Would you demand said offender be removed from the sanctuary? For surely they, with their ingratitude and dishonor, should not be welcome in the house of the Lord.  Would you respond in kind and curse the offender with your body or your mouth?

Or, might you choose to turn your cheek, bless those who curse, and approach the offender to ask what is troubling them that day?  Would you offer to pray for them with a genuine concern for the state of their heart, soul, and mind?  Would you extend to them a place to be heard, a place to be truthful, and a place to encounter God? Would you choose to show them respect and love?

Perhaps one of the most beautiful parts of this whole Colin Kaepernick debacle is the role played by Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and NFL player.  Not only did he respectfully open a dialogue with Kaepernick when this controversy first captured the attention of the county, but he actually met with him in person.  He spoke with him for over an hour and listened to the grievances and doubts of Colin Kaepernick’s heart.  And then, as part of their honest dialogue, he helped find an even better posture for Kaepernick (and now many others) to use when they wish to express the truth of their doubts and hurts in moments designed to engender national unity.

To take a knee has long been a sign of respect.  And if I understand football culture correctly, it is also commonly used as a sign of solidarity among players.  Is it the same as how the majority of Americans have chosen to respect the flag of this country over the years?  No, and it is not supposed to be.  Yet it is possible that in choosing an alternate sign of respect in our posture we can still love our country even while we question it.  Questioning and doubt, be it in our thoughts, or our words, or our posture, can still be a form of love.

To encourage Kaepernick to find this middle ground, a way to still express a form of respect through his body while remaining true to his internal struggles and doubts, is a beautiful picture of community.  Even more powerful is how Boyer then joined Kaepernick at the next game and stood by him during the national anthem, standing with hand over his heart, while his new friend took a knee.  Two different postures – two different experiences, emotions, and views – both united together.

Would that more of us will choose to be like Nate Boyer.  You don’t have to surrender your loves, your beliefs, or your traditions to take the time to listen and stand beside those who hurt, question, or doubt.  You don’t have to accept all that someone asserts in order to respect and love them.  You don’t have to believe someone is right, or intuitively understand their perspective, to care that they are struggling or in pain.

Our bodies are vessels of human expression.  Because that is true, our postures can wound, and our postures can heal.  Let us choose, even when it’s hard to understand, to use our own postures and bodies to heal.  When we do so we can change individual hearts and even whole communities, for posture is powerful.

Never forget that truth is required for healing, even when that truth is messy, painful, hard, or looks different than what others expect.  In order to be used for acts of healing, both personal and communal, posture demands authenticity.  So when we encounter neighbors, be they in football stadiums or in our churches, who convey the unexpected with their posture, instead of judging them, let us listen to them.  Let us reach out and stand beside them, even in their true pain, doubt, or confusion.  Let us leave room for the notion that we can find unity with one another, even as we express that unity in different ways and with different emotions.

All people struggle with loves, devotions, and beliefs throughout the course of their life.  Some of us choose to wear those internal battles more openly on our bodies than others.  When we encounter a person whose posture suggests that they are experiencing some form of pain, anger, doubt, or grief, let us bless and not curse.  Let us have the courage to not be offended for our own sake, but rather be concerned for sake of someone else’s heart. For, in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 12:26, where just one is hurting, we all hurt with them.