Aliens in a Strange Land

We see the grim faces of mothers pushing strollers waiting in lines that stretch for hours.  Hundreds, mostly women and children, seeking refuge from indiscriminate bombing.  Many have had little sleep and little to eat.  Sanitation facilities are in horrid shape or non-existent.

Husbands, older sons and other male relatives are left behind to defend their beloved homeland of Ukraine.  To stand with their freely-elected president Zelensky – who is, more and more, looking like Churchill.  We will all remember his refusal of the U.S. government’s offer to hustle him out of his battered city of Kiev.  “I don’t need a ride.  I need more ammunition.”

Remember, this is the man Trump attempted to corrupt by withholding aid as their country was being surrounded by hostile forces.  He proved incorruptible, to Trumps shame.  By the way – if you want the backstory on Ukraine, read Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum. 

This should be your required Lenten reading this year.[1]  Lent is our pilgrimage down the Mountain of Transfiguration into the misery and problems of the world.  As the old spiritual says, “If you can’t bear the cross, then you can’t wear the crown.”  By faith, sometimes little faith, we embark upon this pilgrimage.

No this is not a “feel good message.”  It is a Gospel message.  It is a message chock-a-block full of solidarity with all who are refugees, either in strange lands, or in their own strange country.  But I digress.

These are the harried refugees pouring out of Ukraine.  Fortunately, for them, arms are open and spread wide.  Though, it seems, not if your skin is of a darker, African or Indian, hue.  In Poland, Moldovia, Hungary and in most of the rest of Europe. 

These people are leaving with little or nothing.  They grabbed what papers and mementos they could of their past life.  Now they’re on the run with little else and little knowledge of what awaits.

“My father was a wandering Aramean; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders he brought us to this place…”

As I survey our political landscape, I am disjointed, feeling out of place.  I am an alien in the land of my birth.  Our family was solidly Republican, firmly ensconced in the middle class – or maybe a little bit better.  And while I frequently disagreed with my folks on such things as welfare, Watergate, and which party would be best for the economy – we held to the same values and verities.

Communism was bad.  Fascism was bad, especially the Nazi variety.   Knowledge and achieving high grades were good.  Democrats were bad.  A whole bunch of people we shouldn’t associate with were bad or at least questionable.  BUT if someone sued my dad, THEN he wanted a Jewish lawyer!  Our country, while not perfect, was perfectible – and close to perfect under Eisenhower.  We supported United Way and our church.
We still didn’t mention FDR.  He was THAT MAN who “fired your grandfather” – Grandpa had been the postmaster of Lodi, California, appointed by Herbert Hoover.  

I can’t imagine in my wildest dreams my parents’ Republican friends supporting a Russian, former KGB tyrant.  Our family was ready to go to the mat with the Soviets.  Especially, my mom who was the founding president of the Signal Hill Women’s Republican Club.  Dad seriously talked about constructing a bomb shelter in our front yard.  We were definitely of the “Better Dead than Red” opinion

I find it appalling that Mitt Romney is the only party member with the moral compass to denounce the “treasonous” Kremlin mouthpieces in Congress.  They and the entertainment wing of his party over at Fox News.

And it’s high time to cut off all Russian oil purchases.  Yes, gas prices will go up.  Can’t we sacrifice a little bit without whining?  As my friend Debi would say, “Suck it up, buttercup.” 

The Russian people are presently cut off from almost all reliable news.  They have become captive to an unwell leader bent on total destruction.  Not much different from the Trump cult of QAnon Republicans marshaled to storm the halls of Congress.  A cult is a cult.  And Trump’s people brook no more dissent than Putin.  Yet these people continue to fawn over Putin.  My parents must be rolling over in their niches at Forest Lawn. 

Comrade Putin is now rounding up and arresting even children protesting the war – children as young as seven and eleven.  What a mensch!  He must now be very scared.[2] 

Is Tucker Carlson okay with that?  Really – the guy who calls Putin savvy.  Talk about “useful idiot!” – Stalin’s dream child.

George Orwell nailed it.  “War is peace and peace is war.”  We find ourselves as aliens in the strangest of lands as we move into our midterm elections.

I hardly recognize my country at times like this.  Those who side with decency, with truth – yes, we seem as aliens in a rather strange land.  A very strange land.  So, by faith we will travel as sojourners in this unrecognizable landscape. 

Maybe, in standing with Ukrainians, we in some small way, might be able to do penance for all the slaughter we have committed over our own bloody history, beginning with the systemic massacre of the First Nations people and those under the lash of the slave master.  That’s beyond my paygrade.  We are where we are and we do what we can in the moment given us.  It’s truly a leap of faith into this strange new world.

Lent is a period that demands what Otis Moss III, calls “Blue Note Preaching.”  The Rev. Dr. Moss is pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, one of the most influential pulpits in America.  In his book, Blue Note Preaching, Moss brings metaphor and story to its proper place, the imagination.  He is a most apt successor to Pastor Jeremiah Wright – a prophet in our time.

“What is this thing called the Blues?  It is the roux of Black speech, the backbeat of American music…the curve of the Mississippi, the ghost of the South, the hypocrisy of the North.”

Blues addresses both the darkness and the light, the pain and the joy with hope.  No sugar-coating.  Through the moan, the stifled soul is freed[3].  And life goes on.

Blue Note preaching gets through a week of stormy Mondays.  It’s getting it “REAL.”  That is the message of Lent — just happy Sundays don’t do it.  That’s surely not what the flock is getting in Kyiv today.  They crave a message that will get them through this tragedy, and so do we.  So, let’s not sugar coat Calvary.  The cross is real.  Uncertainty nags.

“The world is experiencing the Blues and pulpiteers are dispensing excessive doses on non-prescribed [opioid?] blather with serious “ecclesiastical and theological side effects.”  Lent demands we all “keep it real.” 

Lent demands we enter the suffering and dark places of the world, of ourselves.  That land which is so often strange to us, that land where we find ourselves as alien sojourners.

We must address the woundedness of the world, of our very souls.  Only then will the Spirit be able to debride those wounds, cure our soul-sickness.  It’s singing those songs down by the Waters of Babylon – captives, yet free men and women.

We Christians must have a message that will “help you get out of bed in the morning…get up knowing you ain’t alone,” as the character Ma Rainey in August Wilson’s play insists.[4]  It’s about finding God in the darkness.

Otis tells a wonderful story of being awakened (the Holy Spirit? – just listen on) – awakened in the middle of the night with noises through the house.

Otis remembers, having difficulty getting to sleep, after receiving bomb threats against his church.  He was half awake, half asleep when his wife Monica punched him in the arm, “Get up.  Check that out.

“So, I did. Just like a good preacher, I grabbed my rod and my staff to comfort me.  I went walking through the house with my rod and staff that was made in Louisville with the name ‘Slugger’ on it.”

“I looked downstairs than heard the noise again, and I made my way back upstairs and peeked in my daughter’s room.  There was a six-year-old girl dancing in the darkness…just spinning around, saying, ‘look at me, Daddy.’”

“I said, ‘Makayla, I need you to go to bed.  It is 3:00 a.m.  You need to go to bed.’”

“But she said, ‘No, look at me, Daddy, look at me.’”

“And she was spinning; barrettes going back and forth, pigtails going back and forth.”

“I was getting huffy and puffy wanting her to go to bed, but then God spoke to me at that moment and said, ‘Look at your daughter!  She’s dancing in the dark.  The darkness is all around her but not in her.  But she’s dancing in the dark.’”

This season of both Lenten Ashes and the anticipation of Easter Joy, let’s take to heart a message that will keep us dancing through it all – sorrow and laughter.

We sing a soulful song and find the strength to move on, doing what we can. For as long as we can.

On Thursdays I bike with a group of friends in the morning, even when its only forty degrees out there.   We head out to a small café in downtown La Verne for breakfast.  Oatmeal, if I’m good about my diet.  Corned beef hash and some other stuff, if I’m not. 

In my car, this route looks pretty level.  But once I start pedaling, it’s suddenly uphill – all the way back home.  The last two-block stretch up Mountain Ave. is quite a steep challenge.  I have to rest at the top of it.  Every time I make it, I say to myself, “Well, you’ve made it this week,” knowing that sometime the ride will come when I don’t or can’t.  But, today, I made it.

That is how life is as we approach it’s close.  Lent is preparation for those days.  A Blue Note Gospel will get us there.  A fulsome message that accepts both the heights and depths of the challenges of this new, and strange land.  Getting old is new territory.

In Lent is the assurance that as we complete the journey, it is not as aliens but as beloved sons and daughters of the Most High.  Brothers and sisters of one another.

By the way, a love offering to assist with the Ukrainian refugees would surely be an acceptable gift to lay at the altar of the Almighty – just sayin.’  It might now be widow’s-mite time.

“If thou but trust in God to guide thee through the evil days.  Who trusts in God’s unchanging love builds on a rock that nought can move.”  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Amen.

[1] Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (New York: Doubleday 2017).

[2] Sebastian Murdock, “Russian Police Reportedly Arrest, Jail Children Protesting War Against Ukraine,” Huffpost, March 2, 2022.

[3] Otis Moss III, Blue Note Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Westminster Press, 2015).

[4] August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, 1982.  His play named after a popular dance in the 20s, the Black Bottom.

March 6, 2022, Lent 1

“Aliens in a Strange Land”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13

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