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Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
~Orthodox Paschal Troparion
Happy Easter from the Lotus House!
The Christian tradition has long held that the most persisting and infecting temptations we humans face is that of arrogating divinity into our humble humanity—remember the serpent’s words in the garden: “eat and you shall be like God.” The sufferings inflected upon the weak and the innocent throughout humanity’s history is nothing other than this perennial sin enacted: reaching beyond the pure gratuity of my own life to assert violently my will upon reality through murder. Theologian Rowan Williams fittingly calls this the “apocalyptic delusion”—the belief that we can assume the divine role of acting permanently in history by stamping out the life of another. Though we do not have the power to create out of nothing as God does, we assert the power to destroy and so claim dominion over reality. This is what we are remembering today, the time when we humans tried to appropriate a power we were not given—the power over life and death—and murdered the innocent Son of God. This is a day for introspection and repentance, for taking inventory of our own lives and asking if we are graciously receiving the life we’ve been given, or selfishly hoarding that which is not ours. We are always tempted to forget that we are creatures.
This day is more than that though. It’s not only a day when we remember our culpability for the sins of humanity; it’s a day when we remember that we fail at our sins. We try to act with apocalyptic finality, but it is a delusion, the infinite God who gives life sinks into death today, not as one who falls prey to its harsh finality, but as one who undoes death itself. The finite death we deal cannot contain the infinite God.
What we see in Good Friday is that God takes on not only human flesh, but human victimhood. All of the myriad voices that have been silenced throughout our blood-soaked history are not far from God, but are held by him as he embraces their victimhood in the solidarity of death. These voices that seem for all the world to be as still as dirt are given new life by God’s utter identification with them. Good Friday demonstrates that God remembers as one who suffers as a victim in history, not as a cosmic umpire inactively observing history unfold from a considerable distance. God is so close to the victims of history that his memory enfolds their memory. In Christ, God identifies himself as pure victim without a shred of guilt or violence in him, and receives into himself the extremity of humanity’s expulsive violence. Thus, God’s memory is not other than the victim’s memory, and his remembering is a literal re-membering, a making whole of what was broken, a giving again of what was taken; God redeems the past by taking it into himself and raising it in his resurrection.
Christ’s defeat of death through resurrection cleanses us of the presumption that the death we deal is final, that the suffering of history cannot be undone, that the only ultimate act in history is that act preformed by the executioner. Instead, he shows us that divinity is not the power or prerogative to judge and destroy, but is a wellspring of infinite creative love, and this is a divinity we are invited to arrogate to ourselves. Humanity acts with apocalyptic finality only when humanity imitates God in love. Love cannot be undone even by death, but death can, and indeed is, undone by love. The Christian answer to the problem of suffering in history is nothing other than the mystery of the cross and resurrection, of God’s revelation of himself as infinite and infinitely merciful, infinitely loving, and infinitely life.
“Our world today needs weeping. The marginalized weep, those who are neglected weep, the scorned weep, but those of us who have relatively comfortable life, we don’t know how to weep. Certain realities of life are seen only with eyes that are cleansed by tears. I ask each one of you to ask: Can I weep?”
“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.”
Today, Holy Saturday, is a day of lamentation, of weeping. In the Orthodox tradition there is a series of laments that are sung every year for this space between remembering the death of Jesus and announcing his resurrection once again. A portion of it reads:
“Woe is me!” the Virgin mourned through heart-breaking sobs.
“Thou art, Jesus, my most precious, beloved Son!
Gone is my light, and the Light of all the world!”
“Who will give me water, a fountain of tears,”
cried the Virgin Bride of God in her deep despair,
“that in grief for my sweet Jesus I might weep?”
These imagined words of a grieving mother remind us that at the center of our faith there occurs a death. Not only the redemptive suffering of Jesus as a theological concept, but the death of a son, a friend, a beloved one. Jesus was loved by his followers and friends, by his mother and his family. And this person was ripped from their lives leaving a gaping hole of consuming absence.
For this reason, our faith has everything in the world to say to those who have had their world turned upside-down by death, to people who break down sobbing while waiting at a traffic light, remembering for the thousandth time that their child will never again return their gaze with a smile.
This is why, on this Holy Saturday, we gathered with other Christians from the St. Louis region to mourn together. We gathered to remember those who have been killed by violence of every kind in our city. We came to express the raw sorrow these absences have brought into our communities. Together, we decried the division of our community and the hopelessness that engulfs one side of that division. We gathered to listen to each other’s pain and to carry each other in prayer. We gathered together to cry. And to confess that we do not cry as we should.
We left cleanse by tears and strengthened by one another’s presence, but still in mourning. We left still in darkness.
For we know the story. We know that it is only to those who are in darkness that a great light shines; it is only those who mourn who shall be comforted; it is only those whose cheeks are drenched with tears that have them wiped away by God himself.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
Advent has a lot going for it in my mind. In the liturgical year it marks the end of the long drudgery of “ordinary time” and the beginning of a journey that carries us through Easter and Pentecost. It’s a season imbued with hope and joy. I love the songs that we sing—songs of longing that point to the resolution in Jesus. I have a particular fondness for the Advent wreath that rests on our dining room table. We countdown the days to Christ’s coming by watching the purple and pink candles slowly come alight. There are a set number of days until Christmas, so it’s just a matter of simple mathematics.
I’m reminded of the story of Prometheus, that mythological god who stole fire from Olympus and gave it to mortals. For that and other transgressions Zeus chained him to a mountain where he was continually tormented by an eagle that would eat at his flesh, condemned to continually suffer without the release of death. In Aeschylus’s play we learn another reason for his horrific punishment. As he lies there suffering the chorus approaches him:
Iron-hearted and made of stone, Prometheus, is he who feels no compassion at your miseries. For myself, I would not have desired to see them; and now that I see them, I am pained in my heart.
Yes, to my friends indeed I am a spectacle of pity.
Did you perhaps transgress even somewhat beyond this offence?
Yes, I caused mortals to cease foreseeing the doom of their death.
Of what sort was the cure that you found for this affliction?
I caused blind hopes to dwell within their breasts.
Mortals had been cursed with knowledge. They knew all two well that the life of humans is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. For them, that shortness was not a vague sense of danger that they might be dragged into eternity at any moment; it was written on the calendar like a doctor’s appointment. Prometheus thought this cruel. He thought mortals should not be destined to live lives of confirmed desperation, resigned to embracing the absurd finitude of mortality. So he blessed mortals with ignorance, and gave them blind hope instead. Death was thus transfigured from a depressing inevitability to a rude interruption.
Advent is like mortal life before Prometheus’s rash move. It is a finite season with a marked ending. We all know that it will end on December 25, so we are willing to think about waiting for a few weeks. But we would do well to remember that while Advent is necessarily a set period of time, it points to a different reality. Advent is about waiting for God to interrupt the world. This kind of waiting is not like waiting for a date to come on the calendar or for the immanent mechanisms of history and politics to bring the change they constantly talk about; this kind of waiting is hope that God will break into our world like an earthquake.
In dark Nazi prison in November of 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.” God’s entrance into the world is not the consequence of human activities or the passing of time. God’s coming is a rupture of time itself. For this, we wait. That’s all we can do.
At Advent, we remember the generations of people who hoped and prayed for God’s salvation to come. They lived and died longing for the comfort spoken of in Isaiah 40 to be realized. When it finally came it came in a small forgotten corner of occupied Palestine.
At first brush, it seems strange that Advent and Christmas fall during this dark season. Why do we remember the mystery of the Incarnation, that most joyous event, when the earth is barren, dark, and cold? Does not summertime with its flowering life seem like a better time to celebrate the birth of the life-giving Christ?
The birth of Jesus is good news, indeed the best possible news—no; more than that—the impossible news. It’s the impossible news that God has not left us to fend for ourselves. It’s the news that God opens the jail cell and strikes off the fetters of the languishing prisoners. Nothing could be more joyous than this.
Yet, this good news comes right in the midst of all of the bad news we know so well:
The death of a friend.
The unbreakable pain of chronic illness.
The stress of financial instability.
The pain and death inflicted upon black and brown bodies by a deeply racist society.
The heartsickness of loneliness.
It is in the middle these, our coldest nights, our darkest days, when the sun seems to withhold its warmth, that Christ comes. That is why we celebrate Christmas in the middle of the dark, short days of winter.
On Sunday a few of us from the Lotus House went to a service called the Longest Night at a church downtown. Gathered with a few dozen others, we remembered and prayed for the people who died homeless in St. Louis this past year. We left the somber service with candles to gather outside for a closing prayer. The bitter cold of the wind blew all of the candles out. Not one person could hold their light against the darkness of this night. That is Advent. Remembering that Christ, the light of the world, brings brightness to the deepest recesses of this barren world.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”
I can think of no more fitting picture of Advent than protesting injustice and death in the midst of the darkness of the world. For it is to those who are in prison, those who are struggling to keep candles lit, and those who are longing for comfort that the word of comfort finally comes, and comes like an earthquake.
“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”
There has been a lot of talk about reconciliation around here lately. The violent and tragic death of Michael Brown ignited protests around our region. These protests have highlighted how divided our city is. The St. Louis region is one of the most racially and economically segregated metropolitan areas in America. When the 2010 census data was released, Franz Strasser, a reporter and video journalist with the BBC, was struck by the segregation so clearly present in an ostensibly “post-racial” America. He learned about the “Delmar Divide,” the single street that divides St. Louis City into black and white, rich and poor, over-educated and under-educated. He crossed an ocean to come and film a documentary short highlighting this uncomfortable reality (you can watch it here).
As the Ferguson protests have shown us, it is not only St. Louis City that is divided. The protests have pointed out deep problems with St. Louis County. Following the protests, Radley Balko, a reporter from the Washington Post, published a substantial article describing how St. Louis County profits off of the poverty of its residents in poor, black communities (you can read it here). There have also been dozens of stories posted in news outlets around the world recounting how the largely white police forces in St. Louis County (as well as in municipalities like Ferguson) have extremely disproportionate statistics of searches and arrests.
Several months ago a major multi-year study on the health of African-Americans in our region was released by a group of scholars from Washington University and Saint Louis University. They approached the study with the idea that the health of a community cannot be looked at in isolation, but must be examined along with economics, education, crime, employment, and many other factors. All of these things can contribute to a community’s flourishing, or to its decline. The picture they gave us of our region was stark. One cannot look at the report honestly and still claim that we live in a post-racial society. The extent of our segregation is revealed to us in maps and charts, as well as narratives and histories.
It’s easy if you live in the wealthy and white parts of our region to be oblivious to this separation. You live your life, attend school, work and go to church all without crossing imaginary lines. You might hear stories about “those people” up there or the “shady neighborhoods” in north St. Louis, but you probably never go there and meet the people for yourself. When you hear tragic stories of teenagers who are shot, it’s easier to react in disgust and horror than it is to ask difficult questions about the region that you live in and sustain with your daily life.
Thankfully, in the midst of the tragedy of Michael Brown’s death, communities and churches are having some of these difficult conversations. While some people want to continue to keep their eyes closed to the divisions and disparities so blatantly apparent, others are humbly listening and learning about the extent of our divisions for the first time. I have been especially proud to see the churches in the St. Louis region on the forefront of calling for a change. Many churches have been awoken to their own segregation and have begun meeting together to talk about how to heal the racial divisions that plague our society. There have been continual calls for racial reconciliation among the churches, and I hope that these calls will result in more than sentimental moments where we all hold hands and sing of unity. I desperately hope that the reconciliation that is called for will take root and bring about real, visible changes to the way we live and worship in this city.
But I confess that when I think about the task of reconciliation in light of the reality of our segregation, I am overwhelmed. Looking at the charts and maps that show how far-reaching our divisions go I don’t know where to start. It seems impossible to create reconciliation in a region so locked into a history of separation and oppression. Non-profit organizations and communities of faith are no match for the destructive powers of sin that ravage communities from within and without.
This is where the Gospel must interrupt us. For the Christian Gospel shows us that it is impossible for us to bring about real reconciliation, for real reconciliation has already been brought about by God’s action in Jesus Christ. “Reconciliation is not an ethical demand in the understanding of the Christian faith,” writes theologian James Alison,“it is first of all something which has triumphantly happened in a sphere more real than ours, and which is tilting our universe on a new axis, whether or not we understand it. This means that what we think of as real, as stable and as ordered is not so, and what is real and true and ordered and stable is not what is behind us, but what we can become as we learn to undergo being set free from our imprisonment in what we might call ‘social order lived defensively.’”
Reconciliation is not something we do, but something that God has already accomplished. God has already disarmed the rulers and authorities, making a public spectacle of them by triumphing over them through the cross. God has already taken us who were dead in our sins and strangers to the covenant and adopted us as children. In his own flesh Jesus has made peace between those of us who were far off and those of us who were near. He has already demolished the dividing wall of hostilities that we built between us, even if we continue to lie and say that it is still there.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. We remember today that Jesus Christ reigns. But Jesus doesn’t reign like the kings and emperors that we see. In his cross and resurrection, he titled the universe in a new direction; he showed a reigning that is always self-giving love. Jesus made peace and his peace is more real than the violence of the world. His reconciliation is more real than our division.
Our task then, is not to create reconciliation where there is only division. No, we are called to destroy the lie that is our division and reveal the true reality already established by God in Jesus—we are reconciled.
Now, action is no less essential on our part, but we are not tasked with creating reconciliation by force of will or ingenuity of programing. Rather, we repent of the daily lies we tell ourselves and which we so easily adopt as true. The church’s life together and its worship help to rid us of these lies by telling us once again the truth of the gospel. Theologian Karl Barth had this in mind when he wrote that if the church “has a right understanding of itself in its common breaking and eating of the one bread and therefore in its concrete life as a community, then as the body of Christ it has to understand itself as a promise of the emergence of the unity in which not only Christians but all men are already comprehended in Jesus Christ.”
The practice of reconciliation is not all that different from the practice of repentance. It is the recognition of the falsehood of the things we tell ourselves about our who we and our neighbors are. It is a turning from those lies to the truth of the Gospel. It is a looking to Christ, not as a far-away savior, but as a mirror who reveals to us just what it means to be a child of God. In looking at ourselves in that mirror, we can see clearly the dirt that is our lies and division and so can be empowered to wipe them away and reveal the God-given beauty marred by our muck. Repentance, James Alison writes, “is not the need to bow the will before some authority, much less a religious authority. Rather it is the gift of the ordinary access to being created which is proper to us good creatures whose goodness has inexplicably got involved in being something less than we are, a gift whose shape is a certain breaking of heart.”
Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
At the Lotus House we pray every evening and every morning. We read Scripture, sing canticles and hymns, and try to form our lives by the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. One of the most central parts of our prayer life is the psalms, that mysterious library of songs and prayers which form the heart of Jewish and Christian spirituality.
The other day I came downstairs just before seven. The children were sitting at the table, still wiping sleep from their eyes. The kitchen was coming to life with sunshine and the sounds of our chickens outside. Daniel or Alden had already done the house a great kindness by starting the coffee. As the prayerbooks were arranged, I was struck with the beauty of this ordinary morning. This is what life in community is all about. The joy of sharing meals and prayers becomes ordinary, expected, even routine, and yet when I pause for a moment to reflect upon it I am struck by the beauty of it all.
But then the psalm was read and it ruined everything.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O Lord—how long?
I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
they grow weak because of all my foes.
Psalm 6:2–3, 6–7
It as if the psalmist unleashed a tornado into our peaceful kitchen.
I’ve known sadness, heartache, and depression, but these words from the psalmist seem foreign to me. Even in my darkest moments, I never was surrounded by foes. My bones have never had cause to shake with terror.
This isn’t an isolated passage either. Nearly every day at least one of our psalms sticks a knife right in the middle of our time of prayer and reflection.
The enemy has pursued me,
crushing my life to the ground,
making me sit in darkness like those long dead.
Therefore my spirit faints within me;
my heart within me is appalled.
As far as I know, no one in the Lotus House has an enemy that is chasing them, threatening to crush them into the ground. So why do we keep reading this? Why does this darkness keep impinging upon our prayer? Why can’t we just reflect upon bucolic scenes where the serene Jesus of Werner Sallman listens to our every concern and blesses adorable children?
What’s worse, recently our evening readings have been coming from the book of Job. The other evening I had to say “The Word of the Lord” after reading,
Like a slave who longs for the shadow,
and like labourers who look for their wages,
so I am allotted months of emptiness,
and nights of misery are apportioned to me.
When I say, “My bed will comfort me,
my couch will ease my complaint”,
then you scare me with dreams
and terrify me with visions,
so that I would choose strangling
and death rather than this body.
I loathe my life; I would not live for ever.
Let me alone, for my days are a breath.
Job 7:2–3, 13–16
What does it mean to say that these words are the Word of the Lord? What does it mean that God saw fit to include all kinds of lament and even invective directed at himself in the prayerbook of his people? What does this tell us about who God is, who we are, and who we should be?
I’m not sure about all of the answers to these questions, but I’m certain that they are significant. And I am certain that there is far too little reflection on lament in the Scriptures among the churches and traditions that I know. This is not surprising. We don’t have much cause to lament. I don’t have much cause to lament. I have never wanted for food or shelter. I have never been beaten or raped. I have never been forced to work sixteen hour shifts in an grey factory surrounded by nets to catch the suicide jumpers. No one has ever marked by door, threatening to kill me if I didn’t exile myself from the society. No occupying military ever bombed my home and then targeted the only places where we could flee to. No one in authority has targeted me because of my skin color. I am part of the group of people who are allowed to threaten police with assault rifles and receive no punishment. I am not a part of the people who are gunned down for holding a toy gun while on the phone at Wal-Mart.
What right do I have to pray these passages? What do I have to lament?
Lament remind me of Jesus. It reminds me of his cry of dereliction on the cross. But when I pray the biblical laments, I feel more like Peter, weeping by the charcoal fire having thrice denied the one he supposedly loves. Yes, I have much to lament, but I don’t lament my own suffering, I first lament that I am on the wrong side of suffering. I lament what sin has done to me, placing me in a racist world where even Christians are separated from one another because of a long history of sin and oppression that continues to this day. I lament that I am part of a society that is built on the backs of the poor and at the expense of the land and water. Most of all, I lament the many ways that I contribute to the continuing of these grievous sins.
The most foundational point of lament in the Scripture is that something is not right with the way that things are in the world. The world is not as it should be and things must be changed. The people of God do not accept this broken state of things. It is absolutely intolerable that things are the way they are. It is not acceptable that you are three times more likely to die before your first birthday if you are born in our neighborhood than if you are born in south city. The eighteen year disparity in life expectancy between the black and white parts of our region is not tolerable.
This is something those of us who wake to beautiful mornings shared with those we love need to remember. The world is not as it should be. As much as we should welcome the gifts of beauty that God gives us with grateful hearts, we must accept the interruption and challenge that lament gives to us.
Walter Brueggemann writes,
Where the cry [of lament] is not voiced, heaven is not moved and history is not initiated. And then the end is hopelessness. Where the cry is seriously voiced, heaven may answer and earth may have a new chance. The new resolve in heaven and the new possibility on earth depend on the initiation of protest.
It makes one wonder about the price of our civility, that this chance in our faith has largely been lost because the lament Psalms have dropped out of the functioning canon. In that loss we may unwittingly endorse false self that can take no initiative toward an omnipotent God. We many also unwittingly endorse unjust systems about which no questions can properly be raised. In the absence of lament, we may be engaged in uncritical history-stifling praise.
The discipline of praying the psalms awakens us to the reality of history, with all of its suffering, with all of its challenging of the justice of God. In putting these words in the prayerbook of His people, God is inviting us to wake up, to see the world as it is. He is calling for us to know and name the injustice of the world. He is asking us to ask him to change it. In the end, he is jolting us out of our complacency and sinful obliviousness and reminding us that the cry of the broken man on the road to Jericho can be heard even now, even in the ordinary beauty of a kitchen illuminated by the morning sun.
Last week, I picked up a copy of the New York Times. I was looking for a copy of this article, which is about how physicians make end of life decisions, since it connects with what we’ve been talking about in Sunday School at North City Church of Christ. For the last couple of months we’ve been reading through Brian Volck and Joel Shuman’s Reclaiming the Body, which has provoked some very important conversations.
When I looked at the newspaper, I was greeted by the headline “In Places Like North St. Louis, Gunfire Still Rules the Night.” The article, about the part of the city where we live, vividly describes scenes of violence and drug use. It’s not every day that your neighborhood is on the front page of a national newspaper, so I began to share it around. The consensus around the house and our friends was that the article relied on a caricature that did not square with our experience with our neighborhood. It seems like pretty poor journalism since it mostly used a single anecdote to describe a whole portion of a city. The article didn’t mention the complex reasons for the struggles of people in the north city, nor did it bring up the many places where goodness is found in just businesses, vibrant churches, and caring neighbors. In general it seems like a piece of cheap journalism that entertains by depicting the grotesque.
When I was teaching the teenagers at tutoring the next day, we talked about the article. We discussed what it was like when people assumed they knew about you because of an imagined story about your place, your age, or your race. We talked about how God’s story of the world is different than these kinds of stories. We talked about how Jesus shows us that those whom the world thinks are bad or of little importance are actually loved, accepted, and set in the highest place.
All of this has caused me to think about the north city. It is true that the north city can be a physically dangerous place. After I read the story I went for about a two and a half mile walk around my neighborhood well after dark. I wanted to counter the narrative that would have me cowering in fear of my neighbors. While on the walk I was greeted by strangers who showed kindness to me. I saw a mother carrying her toddler down the street playing peek-a-boo completely oblivious to anything else on the street but each other. It was beautiful to see such love. But it’s also true that there was a couple of times when I did feel concerned for my safety. There were a few blocks when I felt that it was wise to be extra aware of my surroundings.
While I feel that the New York Times article was unhelpful and uninformative, I am under no illusions about the real problems that are present in the north city. In our rule it says, “We joyously accept the risks of living and laboring in North Saint Louis, for Jesus’ sake.”
What I’m curious about is where we consider a dangerous place to be and why we consider it to be so. While I wouldn’t advise a young girl to walk through certain parts of the north city alone at night, I wonder if there are not far more dangerous places to walk in the suburbs. As Christians, we recognize that our virtue, our adherence to the way of Jesus, is far more important than our physical safety. In fact, if we take Jesus seriously then we have to recognize that places where faithfulness is difficult are far more dangerous than places where we might be injured or killed.
The world might indeed see the north city as a very dangerous place to be, but the church should see things differently. We should look at the sprawling suburbs, inundated with consumption and isolation, as far more dangerous. For there we can be enticed to chase after more and more, always buying something new, and miss the presence of Christ in our neighbors and in the poor.
We in the church are often so formed by the surrounding culture that we don’t recognize the ways that it has shaped us. We allow it to infiltrate our imaginations in small ways that seem inconsequential at first, but that can result in a life where we are isolated and alone, where the corrupt way the world sees things makes more sense to us than the Kingdom vision we see in Jesus’s life.
I still have a very long way to go before I root out the ways that this world has formed my imagination and the way I see the people around me, but I know that living among the brothers and sisters of the Lotus House is a good place to learn how to see.
The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”
And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.
We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.
And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.
We have a small landing on the third floor at the Lotus House. It is normally a pretty empty space, occupied by a small trash can for recycling for the three of us who live up there. Recently, it has become the new home of three window unit air conditioners. This can only mean one thing. Autumn has come to Lotus.
Autumn brought with it a lot of excitement. We have added a new novice, Scott, who had been a regular community dinner attender. We have been busy with work and school; with travel and service.
The Bass family went to New York City for a vacation. Since they’ve returned, the rest of us have enjoyed being regaled with stories of a lot of “firsts” they were able to have with the kids (first flight, first subway ride).
While they were there they joined Daniel (who had been on a separate vacation with his family in the city) and attended the Nurturing Communities Project Gathering hosted by the Platte Clove Bruderhof community. They met up with old friends like David Janzen, and made many new ones. The kids especially enjoyed being in the beautiful Catskill Mountains. Everyone came back renewed and their excitement has filled the whole house.
Autumn has tastes, just as sure as summer does. So our fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and salads have given way to butternut squash, pumpkins, and soups. Our meals are no longer being enjoyed around our gargantuan (if a bit rickety) picnic table in the middle of a blooming garden, but have been moved in around the warmth of our dining room table.
The colder weather also means that deer season is almost upon us. We are putting a lot of effort into emptying the freezer so there will be space for the bounty that William is sure to provide. I think we should start taking bids on how many deer William will bring in this season. My guess is ten.
The house is preparing to celebrate our fifth anniversary this December. We are hoping to get all of the previous members together for a celebration. It is an exciting time to look back on what the Lord has done in this small place. We are also looking forward, trusting in God’s Spirit to guide us. One of the things that we are discerning together as a community right now is expanding into a second house. This would be a big move for us as a community and it would probably require at least one or two new members to be called to join our life together in the north city.
Life at Lotus is just normal life. Normal life with the regular rhythm of excitement, boredom and busyness that we’ve all come to expect. We are busy with work, with school, with travel. We pray together, we eat together, we serve together, and we laugh together.
Of course, normal life is never just normal, it is pure gift. Every day is full of great and small joys. Joys like seeing Dylan fall in love with reading. Joys like having family come into town for a visit and sharing life with the house. Joys like enjoying the delicious salsa canned weeks ago by Thirza.
Life is also never normal because it is always a struggle, there are always powers and principalities (as St. Paul calls them) at work in the world. Though these powers have been dealt a fatal blow through God’s action in Jesus Christ, they still have the ability to shipwreck us. When we see these powers grab hold of the people we love, of the place we live, of ourselves and our friends and family, we mourn. Normal life is life touched by tragedy. Some here at Lotus have known this all too well recently.
I’m reminded of the time near the conclusion of Acts when Paul is sailing toward Rome. While he and his companions are on the way, the ship is beset by a storm. In the midst of the harrowing scene the people in the boat try to do anything they can to gain control over the situation, they try turning the ship, lowering the anchor, praying, and eventually they desperately throw the cargo overboard to save their lives. The storm continues for many days and neither the sun nor stars could be seen. They are hopelessly adrift for more than a week in the midst of an unimaginable storm. Indeed, Luke writes, “all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.”
Finally, several of them, completely overwhelmed with the seeming inevitability of death, attempt to flee the ship. It’s the only hope they have. To go it alone, hoping against hope to make it to shore.
Paul stops them.
He says to the centurion and soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (Acts 27:31). The men stay. Everyone survives and makes it to the shore.
The fathers in the early centuries of the church understood the ship in this passage, tormented as it is by the sea, to be an image of the historical church, struggling in the world against the powers and principalities. The church needs this story of God’s faithful protection of his people, for the church is not promised a tragedy-free existence. Indeed, we are promised by Jesus himself that we will have trouble in this world (John 16:33). Yet no matter how much trouble we have, no matter how violent the storm’s wind blows, we know that God will save us; we know that we will make it to His shore. But, like the story in Acts, we will only make it to the shore if we stay together. Everyone must be on the ship, for we are saved, not as individual people, but as a people. We are saved together.
Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Sunday evening Alden and I met with some wonderful people from The Gathering, a United Methodist Church in St. Louis. This small group has been meeting for a while discussing various potential intentional living situations. As a part of that, they’ve been inviting people from different communities all over St. Louis to come and answer questions about what community life is like. It was a joy to share with them about our life here at the Lotus House.
One of the things that we were asked about was what it means for us when it says in our rule that we commit to live in “an area neglected by the Empire.” This language is derived from the first of the “12 marks” of new monasticism. We talked a little bit about how the north city of St. Louis has many issues related to the collapse of community life. Over a few short decades a number of factors, some active and some passive, contributed to the decline of the north city.
We talked about the problem of abandoned housing and services. Everywhere you go in the north city you see abandoned houses, vacant lots, empty churches, and boarded-up school buildings. Alden recently attended a meeting for the urban planning of St. Louis. At the meeting, they distributed maps highlighting with pink the public owned vacant properties (perhaps Alden will post about this in more detail later). There was barely any pink in the south city, but north of Delmar Boulevard, there was pink everywhere. All of this visible abandonment speaks to the reality in north city.
Our street is one of the few stable blocks in the neighborhood, but all around us there are people struggling with financial difficulties, with familial dissolution, with addictions, and with the effects of violence. In the midst of all of this, here we are, one small house on the corner. It is hard to feel like something big is happening here. We are just a few people who live together, pray together, eat together, and work together. Can we really restore an abandoned place of the empire? Can we really overturn the whole society in this place so that love and faithfulness embrace, so that justice and peace kiss? For, looking around, that is what we need, not small changes, but big ones—not cosmetic adjustments, but resurrection.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the enormity of the need given our own smallness. But it’s essential to remember how God works, oftentimes not through those who are powerful and in control, but for those who are small and overwhelmed. The words of Fr. Gerhard Lohfink, from his incredible book, Does God Need The Church?, come to mind. Scripture, Fr. Lohfink argues, should push us to be completely dissatisfied with the way the world is, with the abandonment of people and places like north St. Louis. At the same time, he holds that Scripture should also push us to pursue a different kind of answer to this problem than the world can conjure. In Scripture, God works by calling a people through the obedience of one man and his wife. Through generations, this people becomes a community capable of receiving Jesus Christ, thereby overturning the death that had reigned in the world. God has a long view. As we eagerly anticipate the unveiling of Christ’s already-present new age, God is still working through small people in small places. Fr. Lohfink writes,
God, like all revolutionaries, desires the overturning, the radical alteration of the whole society—for in this the revolutionaries are right: what is at stake is the whole world, and the change must be radical, for the misery of the world cries to heaven and it begins deep within the human heart. But how can anyone change the world and society at its roots without taking away freedom?
It can only be that God begins in a small way, at one single place in the world. There must be a place, visible, tangible, where the salvation of the world can begin: that is, where the world becomes what it is supposed to be according to God’s plan. Beginning at that place, the new thing can spread abroad, but not through persuasion, not through indoctrination, not through violence. Everyone must have an opportunity to come and see. All must have the chance to behold and test this new thing. Then, if they want to, they can allow themselves to be drawn into the history of salvation that God is creating. Only in that way can their freedom be preserved. What drives them to the new thing cannot be force, not even moral pressure, but only the fascination of a world that is changed.
Clearly this change in the world must begin in human beings, but not at all by their seeking through heroic effort to make themselves the locus of the new, altered world; rather it begins when they listen to God, open themselves to God, and allow God to act.
Here at the Lotus House, we do not try to change everything that is wrong with our neighborhood, as though through herculean effort we could recreate the north city. Such a task is too big for our small hands. Rather, we simply try to become a place marked by hospitality, grace, laughter and prayer; we try to be a place where the salvation of the world becomes visible in meals shared and in songs sung. We try to open ourselves to God, trusting in God to transform us over time into what the world is supposed to be.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
My name is Stephen. I moved into the Lotus House in early July.
I first heard about the Lotus House from my friends Jordan and Alexis and Alex who used to live here. I had been reading, thinking, talking, and dreaming about intentional communities since my undergraduate days at Ozark Christian College. So when I heard about the Lotus house from these dear friends I was very excited. I heard stories about them making a home in the north city of Saint Louis—of the rhythms of prayer, fellowship, and service that marked the common life here. I knew that I wanted to learn more about this special place. So I visited the Lotus House on several occasions while I was living in Johnson City, Tennessee finishing my Master of Divinity at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. During these visits, I was blessed by the hospitality of these people and I was struck by their humble and gospel-centered lives.
As I was nearing the completion of my studies at Emmanuel, I went into a time of discernment to see whether I should pursue additional studies in theology in order to serve the church through teaching. This process resulted in me applying to several different doctoral programs. I was thrilled when I received a generous offer of admission into the PhD program in historical theology from Saint Louis University. When I heard this news I immediately thought of my friends at the Lotus House. After calling them up and hearing that they had a space available, I began the process of joining the life here.
I have been so warmly received into this place that it is already beginning to feel like home to me. I am very grateful for the opportunity to join in the life of this community. I know that there are great things in store for this community as we seek to manifest the good work of Jesus in this place. I am excited to be a part of that mission!
During our weekly community dinner this past Tuesday, as I was doing the dishes with Jeremy, I was reminded of some lines from T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock. Quoting them seems a fitting way to conclude this post.
Where the word is unspoken
We will build with new speech
There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
Every man to his work.
What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.