The Fires of Justice

Come Holy Spirit,  fill the hearts of your faithful
and kindle in us the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and renew the face of the earth.

This is Pentecost Sunday 2020. While the Christian community remains living and active, deployed in the world to tend to those in need, Covid-19 forced us to live the entire Easter season in a liturgical lock-down, bereft of all the usual ways of gathering, praying and worshiping. That has been surreal and painful. For those who have had the courage to be open to newness and discovery, and who enjoy the privilege of online access, there have been gems of new ways to connect and pray across time and space. It will be a long time before we settle into a new normal, whatever that will be. And the Holy Spirit can and will guide us into a new and fresh witness in the world.

The traditional Pentecost prayer cited above leads me to reflect on the power of fire as God’s agent of communication and transformation.

There are at least two types of fire operating in the world. The one we implore today — kindle in us the fire of your love — is God’s own purifying and transforming fire of love and compassion, the fire of prophetic vision and zeal, the fire of justice and peace. And God knows how much we need this divine fire in the hearts of all people of good will.

But there’s another fire ablaze in the world today. I’m sure that fire has always burnt somewhere, but our modern media bring it into our living rooms at dazzling speed and upsets our little comfy worlds. This is the destructive fire of fury and outrage over the suffering of God’s people, the fire of oppression and violence, the fire of injustice and exploitation, and yes, the fire of racism and discrimination. This Pentecost weekend, these fires of outrage are ablaze in US cities all over the country, burst into flame by the police killing of yet another innocent, unarmed black man, a killing captured on camera in chilling detail.

The uprisings of black people against the structural injustice and racism has reached yet another tipping point. This is real fire, physical fire in setting ablaze police cruisers and buildings, physical/emotional fire in sobbing hearts filled with lifetimes of humiliation and oppression. This fire is a desperate attempt, a last resort, of needing to be heard. Our God of justice and love lives in the hearts of those who are disadvantaged and even killed for no reason. When their lives are crushed by power and white privilege, and their voices silenced, their spirits lower themselves into violence because there is no other way left to cry out for justice and peace. Not acceptable, but stop and think — it is understandable.

Just think of a time when you reached a boiling point of despair and frustration, a time when your heart was broken and weighed down with grief just too many times. At such times, what did you do? We either turn our anger and grief inward, destroying ourselves through depression, addiction or even suicide, or we turn it outward and lash out at others in destructive ways. Now multiply this by a entire people. Do you get it? The Holy Book tells us that God hears the cry of His people (Exodus 3:7) But do we?

When our economic and social structures fail to uphold and foster the divine image in people of colour, resorting to violence becomes the lowest expression of the need to have collective pain of racism and oppression heard and recognized. Back in 1953, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said the following: I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. In the final analysis, the riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear? In a sense, our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our winter’s delay to bring justice.

The fires of justice must burn in the hearts of all who implore the Holy Spirit today, or else we are not worth being called Christian. With the boldness of Peter on that first Pentecost Day, we are to preach God’s fire of justice with our lives — remember, only use words if you must. Do we recognize the white privilege we enjoy at the expense of sisters and brothers who will never know opportunity and ambition, peace and joy, simply because of the colour of their skin? Do we use the privilege we take for granted to debunk prejudice and racist comments in our neighbours and relatives, friends and co-workers? Begin to connect the dots: our own racist attitudes and treatment of people of colour give rise to the violence and uprising of hearts and lives that have been crushed for far too long. So stop the destructive fires of hatred and spite. In the US it’s black people who bear the burden of dehumanizing policies and structures. In our own great country of Canada it’s primarily, but not exclusively, our Indigenous peoples who bear these burdens. Think about that, and repent. That’s what Peter preached on that fiery Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples — repent (Acts 2:36–41).

This pandemic is bad for way too many people, no doubt. But we are also recognizing that the pandemic brings some key lessons which could guide us into a better future if we choose to heed them. One which we hear a lot is that we are all in this together, and that everything is connected. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make this truth crystal clear once again, because it has always been thus even if we ignore it. We are all in the same global health storm, but we are each in different boats struggling with the tidal waves of change. But the fear and heartache, uncertainty and grief of this season are evident in each one’s precarious existence. It is said that Covid-19, while spread across the globe by those who can afford to cross international borders, has made no distinctions, leveling the playing field between rich and poor, white and black, young and old. Yet those who were already suffering from poverty and racism, structural oppression and displacement, have been given a double blow of fear and despair, pain and loss.

If we take seriously that we are truly in this together as one human family, then what one of us suffer, we all suffer: If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor. 12:26-27)

While hunkering safely in our homes, we might be truly inconvenienced by the current restrictions in our freedom of movement. While still connected online, we might truly suffer from the lock-down, the isolation and the social deprivation. But if we are part of the privileged few, we know that our current restrictions will end, that we will manage to pick up and create a new normal. Even in this global health crisis, we can hope and we can plan, we can keep loving and creating. This is not a luxury the majority of the world population will be able to access. And as long as we keep supporting economic systems that favour the few at the expense of the many, destructive fires of rage and frustration will continue to erupt, obstructing God’s Holy Spirit to bring the fire of divine transformation and wholeness to all creation.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us, no set ablaze in us the hot transforming fire of your love. Let us sing with heartfelt conviction the very words Mary sang while pregnant with our Lord, exclaiming in prophetic wonder what the coming of Jesus, the child in her womb, would mean for the world:

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.
You fixed your sight on the servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me.
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
These are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forbears heard
is the promise that holds us bound,
‘Til the spear and rod be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

Song based on Luke 1:46-58 (Magnificat) by Rory Cooney

Two Invisible Enemies

The societal uncertainty and the volatile nature of the virus transmission is enough to drive anyone off the cliff. It’s easy to pout and feel sorry for ourselves, even if all we are asked to do is stay home. Even when we have a spacious home to dwell in, even when we love being at home, and when home happens to be a safe and loving place for us, we can begin to resent the enforced nature of our collective confinement. We feel robbed of freedom and robbed of safety. We are told that self-isolation is the primary preventative measure to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Okay, I get it. I’m healthy, in a good physical space and still have my job. I practice tons of self-talk to convince myself it’s good and important to stay home and not see anyone in the flesh, let alone hug them. It’s good and important to exercise parish ministry with a laptop and the phone. It’s good to try new things, isn’t it, such as an online worship service through Zoom. No matter the volumes of self-talk, however, my pastor’s heart remains reluctant and unconvinced. You’re just getting too old and set in your ways, the upbeat voice inside begins to snicker.

And then our quiet prairie town got hit with its first known casualty of Covid-19. And I don’t mean the illness itself, but its preventative “cure” — the self-isolation. A well-known and loved member of the community snapped under the weight of having to close down his business on orders of the government to limit social interaction. In the end the lock-down and isolation, resulting in a loss of livelihood, purpose and income, pulled the trigger, and he was gone forever. In this lonely moment of despair, he ended it all; that tragic act is now hurting the very people he loved and cared for in his family and his community. Beyond comprehension, beyond consolation, beyond tragic.

Slowly, in one pastoral conversation after another, all on the phone, the puzzle pieces of this lost life revealed a multi-layered and complicated picture of someone who spent a lifetime struggling to rise above the destructive forces pulling on his sanity. Even a completely unrelated phone visit with friends in another part of the province revealed connections to the suicide in our prairie town — how interwoven is the web of connections.

My pastoral heart broke with every puzzle piece the next phone chat handed me — an addiction here, a conflicted relationship there, a tragedy to boot. My pastoral heart broke every time I had to dial a phone number instead of ringing a doorbell. My pastoral heart broke with the sound of choking tears through a receiver instead of in the comforting embrace of physical togetherness in prayer. I couldn’t help it. Every fiber in my being knew that this is not how ministry in the name of the One who touched and embraced the untouchables was meant to happen.

Like the people in Nova Scotia a few weeks ago, an entire community was reeling and we couldn’t even be in the same space together, let alone hold each other in a consoling embrace. Relational connections are vital for emotional, mental and social survival. A web of relationships is stitched together over a lifetime; that web is our lifeline in more ways than we realize. These relational webs are being severely tested right now by the social restrictions. It is hard enough for the relatively sane ones among us, let alone for those who already had their private share of demons to fight before the virus arrived.

When one entire web of life and love in a small, relatively stable and peaceful community grieves the tragic death of one of its own, however flawed his efforts in healing may have been, what hope is there for entire communities in the north? Our Indigenous sisters and brothers have had to stick together as the primary means of cultural, material and social survival. Living in close physical quarters, with few means to self-isolate and disinfect, Covid-19 has now reached the edges of these tight-knit inter-generational families. Already plagued by the social and economic demons of discrimination and poverty, collective mental breakdown as a result of the social restrictions may prove to be a more invasive and long-lasting virus than the one we are fighting off right now.

If the current social restrictions are stretching the inner resources of relatively healthy folks, what is the emotional and mental toll on individuals and families who were already suffering abuse, depression and other life-destructive factors, now and in the years to come? Each of us has our share of internal demons to fight; some of us hide those battles better than others. Some are simply more public than others, and still others are the result of blatant systemic injustice and exploitation.

It is too soon to know what collective mental health price we are paying to keep the virus contained. Both threats are invisible, both are detrimental to the human community. I sincerely hope that the preventive measures are not worse than the illness. There is good reason for my heart’s refusal to accept this season of social isolation as a new normal. It points to the fact that it is not good at all for us to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Prisoners in solitary confinement have long known this basic truth.

Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic, lived in voluntary self-isolation most of her life while her world suffered the Black Death. While making space in my heart for the pain of isolation suffered by so many at this time, some resulting in terribly tragic deaths, I draw solace from her spiritual witness and her writings. Julian reassures me that in our falling and rising again we are always kept in God’s love: “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”Julian of Norwich

In this season of disorienting social dislocation, let us keep a tender heart towards one another, knowing that each of us is fighting this battle in unique and often invisible ways. Let us extend the grace and care we each need to get through this, holding one another in our falling so that we can rise again together, secure in God’s and one another’s embrace of love and mercy. Finally, let us pray fervently that tragedies like the ones in Nova Scotia and in our prairie town will remain the exception rather than the rule.