We begin the church year, we begin the season of Advent by lighting a candle. Just one candle, one small flickering flame of hope. Hope. On Monday evening we learned that a St. Louis County grand jury had decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Whether this was right or wrong, and for what reasons – perspectives and opinions among us cover a wide spectrum, and I hope we all understand what a gift that is. Protests erupted in cities across the U.S. and in Ferguson, Missouri, and media reports soon focused on the violence, looting and arson – tragically confirming for those who were on the streets crying out their pain and anger, that America really was more concerned about property damage than the loss of a black man’s life. “I was disappointed at the outbreak of violence and fires that resulted from the decision not to indict,” wrote the Rev. Dr. Timothy James, one of the leaders of our denomination. “When you think you have no voice, when there apparently is no respect for your life and bewilderment is the companion of your anger, there is very little recourse.” You think you have no voice when you find yourself consistently among the unheard. And without a voice, how can you express your frustration, your pain, your anger, your fear, your lack of trust in the criminal justice system?
Benjamin Watson plays professional football with the New Orleans Saints, and he’s clearly not one who thinks he doesn’t have a voice. He gathered his thoughts on Monday night and Tuesday morning, and on Tuesday night he posted them Facebook:
I’M ANGRY because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.
I’M FRUSTRATED, because pop culture, music and movies glorify these types of police citizen altercations and promote an invincible attitude that continues to get young men killed in real life (…)
I’M FEARFUL because in the back of my mind I know that although I’m a law abiding citizen I could still be looked upon as a “threat” to those who don’t know me. So I will continue to have to go the extra mile to earn the benefit of the doubt.
I’M EMBARRASSED because the looting, violent protests, and law breaking only confirm, and in the minds of many, validate, the stereotypes and thus the inferior treatment.
I’M SAD, because another young life was lost from his family, the racial divide has widened, a community is in shambles, accusations, insensitivity, hurt and hatred are boiling over, and we may never know the truth about what happened that day. (…)
I’M OFFENDED, because of the insulting comments I’ve seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others.
I’M CONFUSED, because I don’t know why it’s so hard to obey a policeman. You will not win!!! And I don’t know why some policemen abuse their power. Power is a responsibility, not a weapon to brandish and lord over the populace.
I’M INTROSPECTIVE, because sometimes I want to take “our” side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it’s us against them. Sometimes I’m just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at. (…)
I’M HOPELESS, because I’ve lived long enough to expect things like this to continue to happen. I’m not surprised and at some point my little children are going to inherit the weight of being a minority and all that it entails.
I’M HOPEFUL, because I know that while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents. I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors. And it’s a beautiful thing.
I’M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. (…) I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.
I’m grateful Benjamin Watson posted these statements. I’m grateful that he offered his thoughtful voice so others could articulate their anger, frustration, fear, and confusion and no longer feel voiceless. I spent Tuesday listening to cries of pain and anger, cries of retribution demanding a response, cries for justice, cries demanding some acknowledgement of the loss and some indication that it mattered not just to some, but all of us. I spent Tuesday reflecting on the deep desire for judgment we all share, a desire for things made right. A desire not just for retaliation or punishment, but for the cosmic equivalent of a day in court when we finally hear the truth about the violent mess we have inherited and perpetuate, day after day, generation after generation, barely knowing what we are doing. We want someone to tell us the truth about ourselves.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
Isaiah’s words resonated in my heart on Tuesday morning like they had never before.
You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. … Your holy cities have become a wilderness. … O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! (Isaiah 64:1, 7, 10)
Isaiah offered these powerful words of lament in the wake of Israel’s devastating exile, a time of deep disorientation and disappointed hope for God’s people. The prospect of returning to Jerusalem was full of promise for the exiles, but the reality of rebuilding their lives was so much more difficult than they had expected.
We have long been like those whom you do not rule, like those not called by your name (Isaiah 63:9).
Isaiah laments the state of affairs between God and God’s people, and it’s not entirely clear whether his words are the people’s confession before God or their accusation brought against God – and perhaps they are both.
We have long been like those whom you do not rule, like those not called by your name.
It was as though their exile had ended only in geographical terms – they were back on the land, but they were still cut off from the restoring presence of God. We are not living in the wake of exile as they did, but we are far from home in this land of promise. The wound of slavery is not healed, and racism causes wave after wave of pain to wash over us – but the pain is mostly felt by the descendants of slaves and other people of color.
Isaiah’s words give voice to our longing for God’s earth-shattering, heaven-ripping presence: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! We have made such an unholy mess of the world that only you can set it right. You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. You let us have our way of domination, exploitation, and dehumanizing trade in human bodies, and we can’t find our way home out of the exile our own actions have created and continue to replicate. Our communities are broken and fragmented in ways we do not comprehend, perhaps cannot comprehend. We have long been like those whom you do not rule, like those not called by your name. We are stumbling in the darkness, not walking in your light.
Isaiah’s words give voice to our Advent longing and he lights a candle of hope with the smallest, most inconspicuous word. Which word might that be in his passionate lament, you wonder? Yet.
Yet you, Lord, are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.
In Advent we acknowledge that we need God to come. In Advent we name the darkness in which we await the rising of the sun of righteousness who comes with healing in his wings. In Advent we look at the world we have inherited, the world we are making, and we don’t allow despair or fear to throw their heavy cloak on us, or denial its seemingly lighter blanket. In Advent we stand with the prophets of old and the prophets of today and say the shortest prayer of hope: yet You. Our hearts ache for the loss suffered by the family of Michael Brown - yet You are our God. Our souls sink at the anger and hopelessness experienced by so many - yet You are our God. Our minds struggle with the divide that a heritage of racism and violence has placed among us – yet You are our God and we are all your people. Yet You reminds and invites us to trust in God’s creative and redemptive work among us as we struggle not to give up on each other, but reach across fear and fixed attitudes, seeking to prepare the way of the Lord.
Jesus urges us to practice watchful preparedness. Yes, look at the world and notice where God appears to be painfully absent, but look again and notice where, any moment now, God’s salvation will come.
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near (Mark 13:28).
Look for the tender places. Look for the places along the long divide where brothers and sisters are already reaching across with the desire to speak with honesty in seeking deeper understanding. Light a candle and look for the tender places where people say, “I’m angry, I’m confused, I’m sad, I’m hopeless and hopeful, I’m encouraged.” Be near the tender places where the voiceless are given voice; sit there and listen well and watch as your heart too becomes tender.
During the Christmas holiday of 1968, Wendell Berry sat in the library at Stanford and wrote an essay on racism that is unique in its analysis and its tenderness. Toward the end he wrote,
No [humans] will ever be whole and dignified and free except in the knowledge that the [humans] around [them] are whole and dignified and free, and that the world itself is free of contempt and misuse.
We light a candle, one small flickering flame of hope, because we trust that Christ will always find a way to come to us. He will come and set us free.
 Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound, 105.