EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as beloved children. Help us to lay aside all envy and selfish ambition, that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Mark 9:30-32.
I can well understand why the disciples were afraid to question Jesus about what he had just told them. We often don’t ask a question when we suspect we won’t like the answer. There are times when I would rather not know the truth, times when I am afraid of the truth, times when I prefer to go on believing what I know are very probably lies to learning the truth. But denial comes at a terrible cost. In a profoundly moving article titled “The Hidden Truth” published recently in the Wellesley College Magazine, Wellesley alumnus Julie Catterson Lindahl finds the courage to ask some hard questions about her family’s history and recounts at length her efforts to uncover the truth about her grandparents’ dark past. Lindahl, a child of German immigrants who came to Brazil after the war, writes:
“I had been raised to believe that my maternal grandfather, my Opa, whom I had met as a toddler but couldn’t remember as an adult, was a farmer who only wanted “the best.” He had managed land in Poland during the war, I had been told, and in 1960 had resettled in Brazil, the land of my birth, where there were better land prospects. He was obsessed with work and being “correct.” That was the truth delivered to me in childhood—perhaps to protect someone, though I am not sure whom. The manner of delivery was often indignant and left me burning with shame. Because I was a child and a grandchild, this person, my Opa, had to be explained.”
Lindahl explains how “when a family stifles its own history, it leaves an indignation that easily tips over into rage.” Her grandmother indignantly insisted that her grandfather had nothing to do with the SS-yet interspersed with this denial were angry assertions that Hitler had done a lot of good that had been unjustly forgotten; that the Holocaust was largely exaggerated-if it ever even happened; that Germany and its people were the real victims of the Second World War. Lindahl had plenty of reason to believe that the truth was being hidden from her and her quest to find it was born out of a “desperation, the unbearableness of continuing to walk blindfolded, and the desire to spare my children this condition.”
Turns out that the only prospect more terrifying than learning the truth is the hell you create for yourself spending your life hiding from it. It takes an enormous degree of emotional effort to live with the protective lies that must be told to justify and excuse an alcoholic relative’s addictive behavior. It is hard, too, for victims of sexual abuse who, under pressure from their employers or their own family members, deny and suppress their experiences in order to protect their abusers. The lies promising to protect us from the truth ultimately turn on us. They keep us in bondage to the past and cast a dark cloud over the future. They require us to sacrifice our integrity for the sake of a peace that is no peace.
Jesus loves us too much to allow us to go on hiding from the truth. Knowing the truth sets us free, but that freedom does not come easily. It requires us to relinquish the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. It demands that we let go of the narrative in which we are the heroes, the innocent victims, the martyrs. Learning the truth about ourselves is a painful and disruptive process. But it is the only way to healing, freedom and true peace. That is as true for us collectively as it is individually. I have said before and I will say again that perhaps the one important accomplishment of the Trump administration is its uncovering the deep and systemic racism that continues to infect our life as a people. The truth is that there continues to be a powerful sense of entitlement among white folk like me who are blind to the systemic discrimination that confronts people of color on a daily basis in government, education and the workplace. The truth is that there is a deep seated fear among those of us who benefit daily from white privilege that we are about to lose “our” country to people with dark skin, strange accents and unfamiliar religions. Donald Trump didn’t create any of this, but he aptly exploited it and, albeit unwittingly, diagnosed and exposed our deep societal sickness.
The truth that heals is laid bare in the cross of Jesus Christ. It is a truth that we fear because it exposes us for who we are: people who are complicit in the murder of God’s beloved Son. That complicity takes the shape of our own culturally inherited racial prejudices as well as our nation’s systemic racism. Sometimes the good news about Jesus Christ needs to be experienced as bad news before it can be heard as good. The gospels are not easy reads if we take them seriously. There are no heroes with whom we can identify. Our spiritual ancestors, the apostles, are shown to be traitors, cowards and deserters. That is the story we tell on ourselves every year at Holy Week. That is who we are. But the good news isn’t finally about who we are, but about who God is. God is the one who raises up his crucified Son, the most precious gift God has to give and the gift that we ruthlessly rejected-and gives him back to us. Knowing who God is gives us the courage to confront who we are-and move beyond it.
I sometimes worry whether we who call ourselves disciples are really making an effort to grapple with the truth of racism. The New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which I was recently a member, has been sponsoring “conversations” about race at its annual assemblies. At the last assembly I attended, I heard a colleague remark: “I’m sick of this! All we ever do is talk and it’s the same stuff over and over.” He was right. These conversations often are frustrating, both for those of us identifying as white who can’t understand why we can’t let bygones be bygones and just get along and the more so for the few persons of color in our church who are increasingly impatient with our blindness to their experience of racism as a present and pervasive reality, not a “bygone.” But we have to start somewhere and I think there is no better place to start than with those of us who have become accustomed to privilege and the benefits it brings listening-without judgment, without defensiveness and without the assumption that we can “fix” everything-to the way persons of color experience life in our American culture and, more importantly, in our church. We might not like what we hear, but as Julie Catterson Lindahl discovered and what disciples of Jesus know, it is the truth that sets us free.
Here is a poem by Roberta Hill reminding us that truth is “scarred” and bound up as much with suffering and death as life and beauty.
Leap In The Dark
“The experience of truth is indispensible
for the experience of beauty and the sense
of beauty is guided by a leap in the dark.”
Stoplights edged the licorice street with ribbon,
neon embroidering wet sidewalks. She turned
into the driveway and leaped in the dark. A blackbird
perched on the bouncing twig of a maple, heard
her whisper, “Stranger, lover, the lost days are over.
While I walk from car to door, something inward opens
like four o’clocks in rain. Earth, cold from autumn,
pulls me. I can’t breathe the same
with dirt for marrow and mist for skin,
blurring my vision, my vision’s separate self.
I stand drunk in this glitter, under the sky’s grey shelter.
The city maple, not half so bitter, hurls itself
in two directions, until both tips darken and disappear,
as I darken my reflection in the smoking mirror
of my home. How faint the sound of dry leaves,
like the clattering keys of another morning, another world.”
She looked out the window at some inward greying door.
The maple held her glance, made ground fog from her cigarette.
Beyond uneven stairs, children screamed,
gunned each other down. Then she sealed her nimble dreams
with water from a murky bay. “For him I map
this galaxy of dust that turns without an answer.
When it rains, I remember his face in the corridor
of a past apartment and trace the anguish around his mouth,
his wrinkled forehead, unguarded eyes, the foreign fruit
of an intricate sadness. With the grace that remains,
I catch a glint around a door I cannot enter.
The clock echoes in dishtowels; I search love’s center
and bang pans against the rubble of my day, the lucid
grandeur of wet ground, the strangeness of a fatal sun
that makes us mark on the margin of our loss,
trust in the gossamer of touch, trust in the late-plowed field.”
When the sun opened clouds and walked into her mongrel soul,
she chopped celery into rocky remnants of the sea,
and heard fat sing up bread, a better dying.
The magnet in each seed of the green pepper kept her flying,
floating toward memories that throb like clustered stars:
the dark water laughter of ducks, a tangle of November oaks,
toward sudden music on a wheel of brilliant dust
where like a moon she must leap back and forth
from emptiness. “I remember the moon shimmering
loss and discovery along a water edge, and skirting
a slice of carrot, I welcome eternity in that sad eye of autumn.
Rare and real, I dance while vegetables sing in pairs.
I hug my death, my chorus of years, and search
and stretch and leap, for I will be apprentice to the blood
in spite of the mood of a world
that keeps rusting, rusting the wild throats of birds.”
In lamplight she saw the smoke of another’s dream:
her daughter walk woods where snow weighs down pine,
her son cry on a bridge that ends in deep-rooted dark,
her man, stalled on a lonely road, realize his torque
was alcohol and hatred. “Hungry for silence, I listen
to wind, to the sound of water running down mountain,
my own raw breath. Between the sounds, a seaborn god
plays his reed in the caverns of my being.
I wear his amethyst, let go my dreams: Millars, Lacewings,
and Junebugs scatter, widen and batter the dark,
brightening this loud dust with the fever of their eyes.
Oh crazy itch that grabs us beyond loss
and lets us forgive, so that we can answer birds and deer,
lightning and rain, shadow and hurricane.
Truth waits in the creek, cutting the winter brown hills.
It sings with needles of ice, sings because of its scar.”
Star Quilt, Roberta Hill, (c. 1984 by Roberta Hill Whiteman, pub. by Holy Cow! Press, 1984) Roberta Hill, is a poet of Wisconsin of Oneida heritage. She grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, among the Oneida community. She earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Montana and a PhD in American studies from the University of Minnesota. She has produced three poetry collections, including Star Quilt, the work from which the above poem is taken. Her work has also been published in Carriers of the Dream Wheel: Contemporary Native American Poetry (1975); The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States (1980), and Harper’s Anthology of Twentieth Century Native American Poetry (1988). She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant. You can find out more about Roberta Hill and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.