The World Is Made of Stories, Not Atoms
Well, my friends, what a week. I’m glad we decided to leave aside our Advent Orthodoxy this year, putting up our Christmas trees right after Thanksgiving, and watching every camel I could find in my house travel to Bethlehem across our altar, as we lumbered along with them in our hearts toward the coming of our savior.
I’m glad because we needed that reserve of hope and love in our hearts this week. The violence at the Capitol at the culmination of our Constitutional election process Wednesday leaves us shocked. There’s just no other way to say it. Lawlessness and bloodshed in our seat of government at that sacred moment of certifying votes strikes at the very heart of our democracy. And it cannot — it must not — be condoned. The sanctity of the rule of law over and against the law of rule is a basic tenet of our citizenship. It’s a primary article of faith of democracy.
And I know that many of us — maybe even most of us — are feeling rattled by what we saw unfolding on live television this week. Maybe we’re even frightened or angry. Those are all entirely reasonable responses. Even some of those who were active participants on Wednesday have begun to make public apologies to our nation and to their own home states, towns, and loved ones. Caught up in the swell of the moment, and encouraged and led by a president determined to hold on to power, they made terrible decisions that they will regret for the rest of their lives. They traded the rule of law for the law of rule, attempting to take by force power that the laws and the election process did not confer. And it’s completely reasonable for us to feel afraid, or angry, or at risk in these times. I know I did.
Scripture and Prayer
How do we begin to make sense of this as Christians? First, we ground ourselves in scripture. Second, we surround ourselves with prayer. Scripture and prayer. But that is not as simple as it sounds. By scripture, I mean all of scripture, and not just the parts you like best, or the ones that prove your point. But all of it, even the parts that are filled with conflict, and the parts that seem to conflict with each other. Life is messy, and people disagree, and that is not just a modern phenomenon that began with the 20th century. Scripture is filled with stories of humankind’s relationship with God. In scripture, we can see long patterns of where God showed up in times of conflict, and it can help us to see where God is now.
For one example, the armed incursion at the Capitol occurred on Epiphany, the day we remember that the magi arrived in Jerusalem on their way to Bethlehem to honor the Messiah. Bethlehem is about a half day’s walk from Jerusalem, so the magi had almost reached their destination, traveling from only God knows where in the East, when Herod heard they were in town and summoned them to his court.
Herod the Great, King of Judea under the Roman Empire, was so frightened, Matthew’s gospel tells us, at the magi’s news of a newborn baby king, that he tries to shake down the magi for more information, asking them to come back to court to give Herod a rundown on all the details about Jesus after their visit to Bethlehem. The magi, for their part, speak truth to power, don’t bend to unjust rule, and keep their own counsel, returning home by another way. But Herod is so desperate to hold on to his power when the magi slip away without telling him more, that (with the help of his privy counselors) he orders the murder of every child Bethlehem under two to eliminate the threat to his rule.
And today is the day we celebrate as the Baptism of Jesus with a reading from Mark’s gospel. John the Baptist was what we would call today a public theologian. He lived apart from the governmental structure, outside Jerusalem but well in view within steps from the well-traveled road to Jericho, and showed in every way that he was separate from the Roman power structure. He dressed in a camel fur vest and ate locusts and wild honey. But throngs of people, recognizing the truth of his message of seeing power in a new way, came from Jerusalem and all over the land to be baptized in water and to restart their lives. Today we remember from Mark’s gospel that Jesus was baptized by John, who called himself unworthy even to untie Jesus’ sandals.
Just a quick note here — I do not mean to draw any parallels on just power based on fur clothing. John the Baptist’s fur vest is a literary mark showing that he is an outsider and does not belong to the power structure. On the other hand, the young man dressed in a fur hat with horns, flesh colored pants, red, white, and blue paint, and little else who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday was NOT a political outsider. He was acting under the encouragement and support of the President of the United States. In other words, even though his clothing was eccentric and fur-themed, the QAnon Shaman — as he’s been referred to — was no John the Baptist.
And that is how scripture helps us to discern the right path — the right next step. Scripture shows us what matters in helping us figure out what that step is. The gospels tell us — all of scripture tells us — that justice is about loving our neighbor and protecting the rights of the poor and disenfranchised. Those who stormed the Capitol said clearly their goal was to protect their power and their way of life — a way of life that openly and proudly subjugates others.
The second thing we can do in crisis after we ground ourselves in scripture is to surround ourselves with prayer. As Christians, it is our job to pray. We fill ourselves — cover ourselves — with prayer. We pray not because prayer causes God to do something God would not otherwise do, like swoop in and help our team win when they’re not prepared. Or get us an A on a test when we really studied for a C.
We pray because prayer changes us. Prayer engages the better angels of our nature. Prayer helps us recall, and internalize, the telling stories of scripture. And prayer guides our motives, forms our outlook, and directs our actions. Prayer keeps us from losing our way, getting swept up in the moment, or forgetting that we are God’s beloved children.
Walk in Faith
We don’t always pray on our knees, in whispered words and solemn tones. Sometimes we pray, and walk in faith, with our actions. We saw prayer in action on Wednesday as young Senate aides evacuated the Capitol two by two, carrying the heavy wooden boxes of the Electoral College votes between them. And we saw prayer in action as leaders from both sides of the aisle implored President Trump to summon his own better angels into action, and for the protesters, and those who sought to disrupt the certification of the election to come to their senses and remember the treasure of our mutual commitment to democracy. Our challenge — and our opportunity — is to come to our senses with love. Even for those who don’t think like we do, have experiences like ours, or with whom we disagree.
The Facebook memory of a photo from of one of my favorite walks in New York City came up Thursday morning, lighting my way in this tough week. Library Way is the cross street between Park and 5th Avenues, ending right at the lions on the steps of the New York Public Library. The sidewalks on both sides of the street are dotted with bronze plaques bearing quotations from great books.
The Muriel Rukeyser plaque was my epiphany this week. I don’t mean to attribute to Facebook the seeming prescience of the Revised Common Lectionary, but sometimes the appropriateness of these images to our current moment is uncanny. The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms, she writes, and the plaque shows books open in the form of the periodic table of elements, laid open for our understanding, and tied together, each in relation to the other.
Each of us is our own story of a collection of unique experiences that form our individual perspectives, and together we are linked in constellations of families, communities, political parties, and nations. While we cannot condone the violence this week, or the unjust law of a ruler, over and against our democratic rule of law, we also cannot miss the opportunity to understand what our presidential election and Tuesday’s US Senate runoff in Georgia have made clear: we are almost evenly divided as a nation in our points of view. And we are all challenged to be a constructive force in our national reconciliation.
So what if we pray actively with Muriel Rukeyser’s vision of a universe made of stories, not atoms, as our first step in reconciliation? What if we pray actively by walking on that road to understanding, doing what only each of us can do — asking, and listening to, and learning from, others’ stories to understand how their stories have formed their views? No one else can walk that road for us, but we can walk it together. What if that is our 2021 Epiphany? It might be the light we need right now. And if we’re lucky, we might — like the magi — get some camels to walk along with us, as they’re just the right ride, and also charming company, for long distance and rough terrain. And that’s the kind of travel we’re called to right now. Amen