World whisperer

Have you heard the great news? Nashville is getting another law school. In October 2009, Belmont University announced the launch of a College of Law, the first new law school in Middle Tennessee in nearly a century. The College will begin classes this fall, and when at full capacity, it will enroll approximately 360 students. That is good news for Belmont, I suppose, and for our city as well, although I must admit that I’m a little concerned. It makes me nervous when the demand for lawyers is going up while the demand for clergy with a divinity degree continues to decline. Do we really need more attorneys?

When Jesus was a guest at the wedding in Cana – you know the story – he turned some 120 gallons of water into wine and revealed his glory in a wedding feast without end. Well, we do weddings here, and when we inquired recently about the possibility of opening a few bottles of wine during receptions in the fellowship hall, we were advised to seek legal counsel and have a separate contract drafted – one for receptions with innocent punch and iced tea, the other for receptions that might include the dangerous fruit of the vine.

I know, the world’s becoming more complex and complicated and we need good attorneys to help us figure things out and manage our conflicts with reason and wit instead of violence – but I just can’t shake the suspicion that the growing demand for lawyers is not just a response to a world growing more complex, but also a major cause of everyday life becoming more and more complicated. Call me sentimental, but I still remember the days when you could get a cup of coffee that didn’t have a warning printed on it, “Caution! Contents may be hot.” I’m kinda waiting for the red sticker on every banana, “Caution! Peel is slippery. Open at your own risk.” Who knows, you may have to sign a release form before you leave the grocery store carrying all those dangerous things in your bags.

Enough of that. Truth is, I don’t know very many attorneys, and the ones I do know are all wonderful people who do great work. And if the Belmont College of Law will add to their number I can’t wait for the first class to graduate.

When I woke up Thursday morning, I heard the news that General  Ratko Mladic had been arrested in Serbia after sixteen long years. Mladic was the head of the Bosnian Serb army throughout the Bosnian war and the man many hold responsible for the worst atrocities in that bloody conflict. His name, along with that of Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, has come to symbolize the Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing of Croats and Muslims in former Yugoslavia. He played a significant role in the bloody siege of Sarajevo, where thousands of civilians were killed, but the most notorious attack on civilians happened in July 1995, at Srebrenica, a Bosnian Muslim enclave under UN protection. Mladic’s forces overran the town and rounded up Muslim men and boys between ages 12 and 77. Hours before the shooting began, the general himself was seen handing out candy to Muslim children in the main square, smiling and joking with them. Then, over the course of five days, at least 7,500 captives were killed, reportedly machine-gunned in groups of 10 before being buried by bulldozer in mass graves. Later that year, the UN war crimes tribunal indicted General Mladic on two counts of genocide for the Sarajevo siege and the Srebrenica massacre.

I don’t know how many attorneys have been working to bring this case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, but I am grateful for every single one of them and for their dogged pursuit of justice. This old man will have to answer in a public court of law for what he did, and I just hope he won’t die before the court has finished its work. It is so easy to make jokes about lawyers – until you need one yourself, or until you cry out for one after justice has been violently undone by unimaginable hatred and the cold disrespect that holds nothing sacred.

On the night before the crucifixion, that final night Jesus spent with his friends, he told them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” Now an advocate is essentially a lawyer, and Jesus apparently assumed his friends would need one and told them God would give them one. Why would disciples of Jesus need a lawyer by their side? Because following Jesus might get them in trouble? Jesus did indicate something to that effect when he warned his friends, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”[1] Do we need a lawyer to shout, “Objection!” when the world drags us into court because we see what the world cannot see? “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say,” Jesus says in the gospel according to Matthew. “What you are to say will be given to you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you”[2] – are we to assume that the Advocate will lean over and whisper lines into our ears for a convincing argument?

But what if it isn’t the world that drags us into court, say for following Jesus when everybody else has been following the prevailing winds of the day? What if it is our own conscience accusing us that we are indeed following the prevailing winds of public sentiment rather than Jesus – do we need an advocate who will speak in our defense and make a powerful case for grace?

Or do we need an advocate when we watch the news of yet another tornado shredding through yet another town leaving so much death and destruction in its wake – do we need an advocate when we look into the face of a father whose two little boys were killed, one in the bath tub where mom and the kids had sought shelter, the other one ripped from his mother’s arms and his body not found until two days later? This father certainly needs an advocate who mourns with him and groans with him and speaks for him with sighs too deep for words.[3] Does he have one?

I believe he does. I believe we do. Jesus sends the advocate who is the Spirit of truth, the comforter who breathes in us when the world takes our breath away, the helper who stands beside us, the witness who opens our eyes and ears and hearts to the presence of Christ.

Table runner detailThat night before the crucifixion, before the world came to its quick verdict and moved without delay from sentencing to execution, that night Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” And he said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And he said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” And he said, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” And he said, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” Jesus’ words to his friends that night were nothing like a commencement speech, they were like music, ever new inventions on a theme he had embodied all his life: love in communion. In his life and his words, seeing, knowing, loving and living intertwine like melody lines in a symphony, and Jesus invites us to come in and be part of its glory.

Jesus sends an Advocate to be with us forever; this is the Spirit who teaches us to hear the theme of life in communion in common conversations and even on the radio news; this is the eye-opener who allows us to see that love is the truth and how wondrous life truly is; this is the world whisperer who descends upon our hearts to give testimony on behalf of God, and who descends upon the heart of God to testify on our behalf. This Advocate works tirelessly to wake us up to the miseries of genocide and war, and to instill in us an aching hunger for peace, whispering over our shoulders, gently prodding us, dropping hints left and right to direct our attention to the beauty of life in communion.

Several years ago, Johnny Wray, who was at the time the Executive Director of Week of Compassion, came to visit and he brought us a gift from our neighbors across the ocean. This table runner was hand embroidered by Saha Prses who lives in Sarajevo with her two children. Saha did this work as part of a women’s project called ‘Sarajevo Phoenix.’ Those women came together because they refused to let violence have the last word in their broken city. They were Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs who believed in a multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina. Some were refugees, some had lost their homes in the 44 month siege of Sarajevo, others were widows who lost their husbands in the carnage of war. The variety of colors and patterns in their fabrics reflects the diversity in age and ethnicity. Patiently and skillfully they created beautiful pieces of cloth and other textiles, and doing so together they revitalized the fabric of life in their communities. I imagine that they came together sometime on Thursday afternoon to talk about the possibilities for reconciliation and lasting peace that the arrest of Ratko Mladic had opened. I don’t know if and how they interpreted their experience spiritually, but I recognize the voice and work of the Advocate, the world whisperer who invites us to life abundant in communion with God and with one another.


[1] John 15:18

[2] Matthew 10:19-20

[3] Cf Romans 8:26