16 June 2016

"Keep your lamp trimmed and burning"

Early Sunday morning, Moscow time: I said goodbye to Judy as she got into the shuttle van to the airport terminal, then I walked through the light rain back into the hotel, and fell back onto the bed.

I awoke again close to checkout time, descended seven floors to the reception desk and handed in our keys. A half hour later I was on the train to Belorusskii station, still groggy from sleepiness. I couldn't quite grasp what my smartphone was trying to tell me: something about a nightclub being shot up in Orlando, Florida. Isn't Walt Disney in charge there? I transferred to the metro and then the train to Elektrostal, and kept looking for more details on this story. Time was going by ... Judy must be in Amsterdam by now. Twenty people dead in Orlando, but nobody would commit to that number. A gay nightclub. I dreaded seeing updates but couldn't stop refreshing the feed.

Elektrostal. I get in the door and sit down at my desk. The cats cling to me. They don't ask where Judy is; they've been on to us for days, as suitcases appear and get filled under the cats' watchful gaze. They probably even know that I'll be disappearing, too, in a couple of weeks. Online, I get more details from Orlando. But what's worse are the details they can't give -- the reporters describe the anxious questions of families and friends of nightclub patrons who haven't been accounted for. By the end of the day, we have some numbers -- fifty lives lost, even more wounded -- but many people still don't know what happened to their loved ones. It's an ancient agony haunting us yet again: what have you done with my beloved?

The next days bring no relief, as uncertainty about the dead and injured is replaced by uncertainty about the killer and his frequently-mentioned "inner demons," and dread and disgust over the rapid political exploitation of this tragedy. There's something else about the responses to this atrocity that I can't quite put my finger on, and it has to do with the oddly-shaped response of the churches. I was glad for Orlando's Baptists' generous expressions, and -- interestingly -- I heard that a Chick-Fil-A had opened their normally closed-on-Sunday doors to serve food to the blood donors and other helpers. I was grateful for our own Northwest Yearly Meeting superintendent, Becky Ankeny, and her tender expression of care, but the larger church as a whole came across to me as somehow strangely half-inarticulate. It could just be me; maybe it's just hard to discern from this far away.

A few of my friends went online to express more than sadness. There was anger, too. In one case, it was anger over the fastidiousness with which the sexual identities of those targeted in Orlando were not acknowledged, and in another, the constant unwillingness of our country to reform gun laws. Maybe I'll eventually get angry, too, or maybe, in the church's division of labor, righteous anger will not be my portion this time.

Instead, I was given this song, "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning." On Tuesday evening the regular e-mail bulletin from John Wilson of Books & Culture arrived, and he mentioned this new album, God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson. One of the eleven tracks is this song, along with other old favorites such as "John the Revelator," "Bye and Bye I'm Going to See the King," and "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time."

I downloaded the album, and let it do its healing work on me. Well, not healing, exactly, but keeping me company with its songs' gracious sanctified realism. "Keep Your Lamp" appeals to me especially -- it's not a message of passivity, but of patience, waiting, remembering that God doesn't change, and God's promises remain true. How I will be an instrument for God's promises in this present time isn't clear to me yet, but it's not my job to figure that out under my own steam. I need to keep my own lamp trimmed and burning. I need to do what it takes for me to stay facing the Light.

In bleak periods, I tend to fantasize about revival. And Mike Farley's post on Quaker renewal seems to fit with the song I'm listening to. Friday PS: Hye Sung Francis on Quaker revival. You rarely see the words "cheese, crackers, wine, and spiritual warfare" all in a row.

Prepare for some rough language as you read about what it's like to be a lesbian in Russia, the day after the Orlando massacre. (More here about the two men with the "Love Wins" sign.) I habitually wonder how the Good News becomes part of these situations.

Why we should not call Donald Trump a fascist. (Podcast.)

Eloise Hockett, president of Marafiki, describes what happens when your airplane becomes your neighborhood.

Last week I mentioned Russia Religion News as a way to keep up with developments on the Pan-Orthodox Council. For theological background, here's another resource: the Orthodox Theological Society in America's Special Project on the Holy and Great Council.

"Keep your lamp..." Here's a live performance by the musicians who recorded this track on the album.

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