Dear siblings in Jesus Christ, As ever, we have so much to pray for…
But this week, I invite you to do something a little odd with me: Will you pray with me for Jesus, too?
In this week in which we remember his most agonizing moments, his trauma, his desolation, his execution as a common criminal, let’s pray for him, as he prays and works unceasingly for us.
Friends, let us pray.
For those unjustly blamed across time and space:
for Jesus, accused and sentenced to death by the powers who feared his revolutionary Kin(g)dom;
for our Jewish neighbors, wrongly punished across the centuries for Christ’s death and for many other crimes of which they are innocent;
for members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community who have become a hyper-visible target to pin this pandemic on;
for migrants and immigrants who are accused of stealing jobs and depleting resources simply for daring to seek a life for themselves and their loved ones;
For those unjustly shamed across time and space:
For Jesus, tortured and taunted by Roman soldiers, stripped of his friends, his clothing, his life;
For sex workers whose livelihoods are criminalized and bodies dehumanized;
For all who have been victim-blamed, told that harassment, abuse, and even death are their fault because of who they are, how they act, or the jobs or beliefs they hold;
And for those who go unnamed across time and space:
for the two men crucified alongside Jesus, and the countless others who have been tortured, executed, disappeared from before the dawn of the Roman Empire through the current regime the United States;
for all victims of mass shootings, too many to name, too many to bear;
for the numberless masses of human beings crushed under the grindstone of “progress,” the deaths of their cultures and of their bodies justified in the name of excess wealth for the few;
O God who hears the cries of those unjustly blamed, those dehumanized and shamed, those whose names are eradicated from recorded history
and who replies by becoming one of them, by entering into ultimate solidarity on a Roman cross, and by exposing the violence of worldly powers for the evil it is,
Make your Spirit known to us. Unite and empower us for the work ahead.
I wrote this pastoral prayer for Grace Presbyterian in Tuscaloosa, AL, for their 2021 Palm Sunday service occurring not long after the Atlanta Spa Shootings and yet another shooting in Boulder, Colorado.
i will not worship my husband’s god – not now i’ve witnessed how he acts in wrath:
how he burns children and cornered women with the men who long tormented them
and scorches tortured earth and bodies that maybe could have bloomed again if given time and proper nourishment.
anyone who dares to preach to me on necessary evil, or collateral damage, or how everything happens for a greater purpose
while stepping deftly over charred corpses to avoid soiling their shoes
should thank their bloodthirsty gods they are out of range of my frozen fists.
i will not worship the god of my husband, no! – he never belonged to me or mine anyway, nor made us his.
in his search for just ten righteous people in this sand-and-soldier-blasted city he overlooked us women and our little ones.
of course he found no innocents among the men perverted by the war they’d lost who would not let themselves give in to grief but let their self-contempt and wounded pride corrode into distrust of all outside their little sphere…of course!
O god of men like mine! of course you failed to round up righteous men in such a place where strangers are condemned as enemies and difference is dragged out and disciplined!
but had you thought to look where men never look you would have found us.
if any god will make room for my wrath i’ll worship them till my last crumbling breath!
the sex slave of my husband’s uncle claimed she found a god who saw her as she languished – a goddess not too proud to meet her gaze nor too ashamed when faced with Hagar’s anguish to hear out her complaints.
o desert deity of the attentive eye and ears that hear the tortured woman’s cry, are you the one who turned my frantic flesh into this silent sentinel of salt?
let me worship whatever Being it was who took my broken heart and salted it so that never again will it have to bear fruit only to watch it trampled and consumed by men not worthy of it.
yes! let me worship whatever Being it was who came in mercy, not in wrath to wrap my limbs in unbreachable brine so he can never, ever touch me, take me, again –
not after what i heard he’d let men do to the fruit of our union, the girls of my womb;
not after he proved willing to turn his back on women and children going up in flames.
that is the Being i’ll worship now: the One who stood with me transfixed upon despair,
who empowers my bearing witness for all time to the screams of burning women, left behind.
with my face to them my back is turned on him forevermore…
though i worry who will protect my daughters now from him from all men.
if any deity swears to defend my little girls, i swear i’ll worship them…
from my fixed point in the sand i watch the stars flow across the overturned bowl of the sky.
i alone watch long enough to learn by heart the patterns stretching over years traced by these winking fish wheeling in their pool of perfect black.
but i who chart the arc of time unblinking discern no promised bend towards justice.
evil breeds and grows as strong as good. knowledge is slaughtered, lies fallow for centuries before it raises a slender shoot again that is seized and hailed as something New… only to be mangled, murdered, dis-membered again.
nothing new, nothing new under the stars.
with sleepless eyes i mark the cyclical slaughter the rich slip underneath their laden tables while sipping from their cups that bubble over red as the blood they’ve trampled from the neighbors they choose not to re-member.
and, far away and high, as eons wheel by i watch the stars wink out one by one.
If you this piece it in your own service, please credit it to Avery Arden and link to binarybreakingworship.com. I also invite you to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know you’re using it!
About this poem:
I intend for this poem to make two points:
That to bear witness is holy and necessary, particularly when moving quickly on from history’s atrocities serves the Powers That Be. This is why in my poem, Lot’s Wife interprets her transformation not as a punishment for looking back but as a gift or act of mercy — affirmation of her need to bear witness, her refusal to turn her back on her neighbors.
That we must actively reject the God of Patriarchy, the God of Genocide, the God of Xenophobia, in order to embrace the God Who Sees those whom the world discards. See Shirley Guthrie’s commentary on God the Heavenly Tyrant being dead, along with all other “gods that were really nothing but a projection of our own fears, wishes, insecurity, greed, or speculation.”
Meanwhile, I acknowledge this poem’s shortcomings, particularly the over-simplification of implying all the women of Sodom were “innocent” or that all the men were guilty; gender dynamics are much more complex than that, especially in our own time and space. To say nothing of nonbinary people like me who do not fit within that man/woman dualism anyhow.
I have long held a deep compassion for Lot’s (unfortunately and tellingly unnamed) wife of Genesis 19, ever since first reading Slaughterhouse Five in middle school, in which Kurt Vonnegut writes,
Vonnegut’s was the first voice I found that pushed back against the predominant interpretation that Lot’s wife was wrong to look back. Since then, I have found others who also treat this woman with love instead of scorn — including the primary inspirations for this poem: Miguel A. De La Torre’s Embracing Hopelessness (2017); and Peterson Toscano’s and Liam Hooper’s Bible Bash Podcast episode 26, “Sodomy, Terrorism, and Looking Back.”
In a different work of his, a short essay from 2010, De La Torre explains that Lot’s wife has been vilified across the ages in order to “justify her demise”: “If she is not portrayed as a foolish woman with a self-indulging heart, then her punishment would appear capricious.” If we are to believe in a fair God who doles out punishment only on people who deserve it, we must conclude that Lot’s wife was wicked somehow. To suggest that she was right to look back, and unjustly punished, is to call God’s goodness into question — or at least to question the biblical text.
De La Torre argues that we will never know the motives of Lot’s wife (and of course I agree, even while using this poem to imagine what those motives may have been). Chances are, he says, this woman was neither perfectly innocent nor horribly wicked:
It is this woman who carved out a life — as so many of us must — in “the entrails of empire,” who befriended her fellow unnamed women in patriarchy’s shadow, that I with Vonnegut love dearly.
As we come to accept that we cannot know much but only conjecture about Lot’s wife, the biblical text does provide us more background on Sodom than is often explored in discussions of this story.
In the Bible Bash episode from which I drew for this poem, Peterson Toscano brings in Sodom’s painful military loss in Genesis 14 to contextualize the xenophobia and brutality of Sodom’s men in Genesis 19. In the biblical world, defeat in battle sometimes resulted in the rape of defeated soldiers by the victors — sexual violence that is much more about humiliation and domination and toxic masculinity, of course, than sexual orientation. Moreover, Sodom’s enemies proceeded to loot the city of everything. After such a painful loss, it seems in Genesis 19 that the men have been twisted into hateful, fearful beings — in a way that Peterson skillfully connects to the United States’ response to 9/11. These defeated men of Sodom would enact sexual violence on any foreigner who dares enter their domain, as if to regain some of their (toxic) masculinity by acting as the victors, not the defeated.
It is this war-wounded city that Lot, his wife, and his daughters flee — but only his wife looks back. And therefore, according to Peterson,
(The counting of the righteous being a reference to Genesis 18, wherein Abraham persuades God to refrain from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah if just 10 “righteous ones” (masculine plural) can be found within them.)
Later in the episode, Liam responds to Peterson’s declaration that Lot’s Wife is the only righteous person the Sodom story shows us by relating her choice to look back to the present day:
Whenever God is constructed in the image of fearful, vengeful, violence-hungry men, we must like Lot’s wife disobey. We must face the atrocities we would much rather turn away from.
And therein comes the influence from Embracing Hopelessness, wherein De La Torre rejects triumphalist histories that sweep suffering past and present under the rug for the sake of the comforting lie that humanity is making constant progress towards God’s reign. In accepting that history is more disjointed and arbitrary than we’d like to think, and that it has no certain happy ending, we join the poor in their state of insecurity and uncertainty (see pages 47-49 of Embracing Hopelessness).
According to De La Torre, we must let go of our salvation histories wherein suffering will be revealed to have meaning in the grander scheme of things, in favor of active solidarity with the world’s most disenfranchised. We reject ideologies that paint them as less human than us, or as coerced “living sacrifices” on the altar of progress (p. 55). With Lot’s wife in my poem, we do not turn our backs to the pain that is accepted as a necessary evil to fuel the luxuries of the elite few. And unlike with Lot’s wife, we cannot compel individuals to shoulder the burden of bearing witness alone; it must be a communal act.
As De La Torre explains, only when a community — its privileged and disempowered alike — dares to acknowledge atrocity can collective healing begin. He shares psychological findings that show how “Refusing to forget the horrors of history can bring healing,” as making space for survivors to be heard “contributes to a collective healing process that publicly condemns the past while attempting to prevent future violations” (p. 103 of Embracing Hopelessness).
Without a communal acknowledgement of atrocity, there can be no healing. Thus there will be no healing for Lot’s wife: she is quite literally frozen in her act of re-membering her destroyed city, because none join her in it. Just as marginalized persons are dehumanized into mere objects in the dominant culture’s epic history, Lot’s wife is denied personhood as well — her very name has been lost to time along with her human form.
Meanwhile, in turning their backs to the destruction, fleeing from acknowledgement of Sodom’s suffering, Lot and his daughters likewise will find no healing. Their story as developed in Genesis 19:30-38 brings more atrocity, more fracturing of personhood and relationships. As De La Torre explains, “Trying to forget past traumas…leads to emotional disorders with consequences for the individual and community” (p. 103). Trauma unaddressed begets trauma across generations.
With the generational trauma that has built up and festered over centuries in our own time, it becomes clear that “present social structures are the end product of a history the dominant culture prefers to forget. These events may have taken place in the past, but the power and privilege squeezed out of them continue to accrue” (p. 105). In the face of this reality, we must admit that the notion that history’s arc naturally bends towards justice is nothing but a comforting lie.
And when we reject that comforting lie for the truth that the future is uncertain, we must also scrutinize the certainty that a wholly good, all-powerful God exists — the question of theodicy. Alongside the righteous Job of scripture, as well as with Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, De La Torre puts God on trial; he insists upon holding God accountable for not preventing the horrific suffering that is the disowned and forsaken offspring of Eurocentric, imperialist “Progress.” And for any who may worry that such a trial would constitute some manner of blasphemy, De La Torre writes,
I imagine Lot’s wife joining in the outcry of Job, of prophets and psalmists, of Elie Wiesel and numberless others who respect God enough to demand answers from Them. I myself will continue to grapple with the stories of scripture as well as the stories of my own nation, to wrestle until a blessing for the oppressed is shaken out.
May we all band together for the difficult work of dismantling false gods and false histories, in order to make room for truths that empower and restore dignity to the most disenfranchised of our world.
Jesus, heart of my heart, heart of all the cosmos – your heart struggled – stammered – stopped.
(i am so sorry.)
when you walked the earth you lived to liberate, to serve, to ease, to lead towards flourishing:
you broke down and sobbed when those you loved were crying, extended your hands to those desperate for human touch, invited the high-up to come down and dine with the ones you’d raised from the dirt –
and still, today, right now, your very Breath rushes down to comfort, to stir up, to galvanize:
unfurls Herself in hospital rooms where breaths come labored – slow – and stop;
gusts through grocery stores, buoys up the worker with the fearful mind and aching feet;
sweeps through power’s halls upturning spreadsheets, tugging at shirtsleeves.
but just for today the day you died
let me pray for you
let me cry out with you the cry ripped from your chest as the cross claimed your breath, dripped out your lifeblood, throttled your lungs’ rising
My God! My God!…
Jesus, heart of my heart, heart of all the cosmos!
will you take a little rest in these hours your heart was stopped?
let us attend to the aching world for just this little while.
how urgently i wish i could stop your pain
pull out the nails my kin drove in- to your skin and sinew
staunch the whole world’s bleeding while you sleep the deep, dreamless sleep of the tomb…
if i cannot do any of that, then let me do this:
you who ache with every broken heart, who bruise alongside every trampled body,
today let me ache with you.
If you use this piece, please credit it to Avery Arden and link this website. I also invite you to email me at email@example.com to let me know how you’re using it!
About this poem:
This was my prayer for Good Friday, 2020: Jesus, every day of the year, every instant of eternity, you care for the oppressed, the sick, the despairing. You suffer alongside us. For just this day, let us suffer with you.
Tonight we follow Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane.
As we kneel with him in the dark, see his hands clenched in prayer, the blood on his brow, in his tears, as we hear the cry wrench out of him, “Take this cup away from me!”
…we hear also the cry of so many of our siblings.
“I cannot bear this part of myself, O God. Why are you calling me to this? Why did you make me to be this way, when all it has done for me is cause loved ones to abandon me? Take this cup away. Please take this cup away.”
Let us not be like the disciples who slept, ignorant of Jesus’s agony.
Let us not be like them when they fled the scene leaving him to the ones who chained him and dragged him away.
O God, set our hearts on fire with a fierce compassion for your oppressed children, so that we cannot sleep when they cry out.
We go to them. We stay awake with them. We. stay.
We remember the one who broke bread and called it his body, who knelt to wash our feet. We remember the one who commanded us to love in such a way – to serve and be served.
Let us go now into a world full of cries, all anxiously awaiting a day that seems far off, a dawn past all suffering when we will rise transformed, when relationships will be reconciled and all will know God’s love.
In the meantime – this time of anxious waiting – we leave no one alone in their agony. We cry out with them. We stay awake with them. We stay.
Below are several charges + benedictions that may be fitting for various worship services – some for general or joyful services, and others for services that focus on lament or solidarity with the oppressed.
Friends, The Triune God whose self-sustaining love overflows into all Creation, who whirls into our lives and sweeps us up in Their lively dance,
now sends us dancing out into Their world to fill its empty aching with God’s love, to subdue its pain with Their peace, to make Their good news known far and wide in what we say and what we do.
So let us go, glorifying the Source of life in all we do and growing in Their love.
Let us go, following after the Redeemer of life and striving to follow the example He set through His ministry.
Let us go, hand in hand with the Sustainer of life allowing Her to use our hands to transform death into new, radiant, abundant life for all creation. Amen.
[referencing protests and activism]
Siblings in Christ,
Nourished by song and by scripture, by God’s Word proclaimed and Christ’s Body shared, it is time for us to go and be a nourishment to others. Whether at home or at work, at the park or at a protest, let us live out God’s good news of liberation and community for the world.
Go in peace, go with courage, in the name of the One who creates, sustains, and redeems you.
[drawing loosely from Exodus 17:1-7]
How can we thank God for the abundance that Xe has lavished upon us here? Only by responding in kind, by feeding one another as God has fed us.
So let us go now, encouraged by the knowledge that we do not go alone: we have each other; and the one who Creates, Sustains, and Redeems us is in our midst, blessing and empowering us for the work ahead.
[drawing from Psalm 23]
We have worshiped you and praised you for gathering us, diverse as we are, into one flock. Now, it is time for us to enter back into the world.
Lead us forth, guiding us through valleys and shadows, protecting us as we dine not only with friends but also with foes, in the hopes of becoming one with them too.
Help us to be shepherds as well as your sheep, guiding one another through valleys of shadow to food, to water, to rest.
The way is not easy, but we rejoice, because you guide us always and because you give us to one another to serve you and to be your church together.
[suitable for services of lament / that address suffering, anger, etc.]
Comrades in Christ, Here we have received good reason to believe that the God of the Oppressed is with us in solidarity
– not only when we are content or joyful but also when we are grieving, when we are enraged, when we feel disappointed in God, when we cannot feel God.
Assured of God’s steadfast presence, let us go out into a world full of grief and disappointment, full of downtrodden spirits and tortured bodies, and join God in Their solidarity with all who cry out for justice.