I am weary this morning, weary to the bone. Will I ever see the day when the powers that be in the Holy Land fight for peace as they clamor for war? Will I ever see the day when anger and mistrust does not rage throughout our nation like an aggressive cancer out of control? Will I ever see the day when our national leaders listen to and talk to each other across their substantial differences rather than shouting at each from their alternate universes? Will I ever wake up to the day when we no longer excuse the language of vilification as acceptable and normal, rather than condemning it as disgusting and demeaning?
Years ago, I joined with religious leaders in Atlanta on a photography tour of the Civil Rights era. The tour was led by Ambassador Andrew Young. I stared at photo after photo of that harrowing and often heroic era, until I stopped in my tracks before the photo of one of the heroines from the Civil Rights movement, Fannie Lou Hammer.
In 1961, without her knowledge or consent, Fannie was sterilized by a white doctor as a part of Mississippi’s plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state. For the rest of her life, Fannie was on the front line of freedom marches, often being beaten to within a breath of her life. The photo I stared at, though, was not of Fannie; it was a photo of her tombstone that reads: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Preach it, Fannie. For I am weary today. I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, sick and tired of people insisting that slavery was actually a hidden blessing for our African American kin. I am sick and tired of mostly older white men who feel entitled to restrict the reproductive choices of women. I am sick and tired of the poor being blamed for their poverty as if had these poor folks not been so greedy and racked up so much debt, they would not be so poor and we would not have to worry about how to feed them and house them and find them jobs.
I am pretty sure that financial accountability is needed across all the economic spectrum in our land and I am really sure that the ones who set money policies in America, and the ones who issue subprime loans to the most vulnerable and desperate, are not the poor. I could go on, but Fannie Lou Hammer says it all for me, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Whenever I find myself in this kind of sad funk, I go looking for companions. I go looking for others to be sick and tired with me, people who are ready to join me in my weariness. I avoid anyone who tries to tell me to chill or to suggest to me that everything will be just fine or to counsel me, “Gary, you just worry too much.” No, when I find myself in this kind of sad funk, I go looking for someone, anyone, who is ready to shout at the moon with me.
Being a preacher and having spent much of my life preaching from his letters, I know that Paul was no stranger to my weariness. He was tossed in prison for simply telling the truth. So, this week, I decided to pay Paul and revisit one of his letters, the one to the Philippians.
Despite a distinguished career and an impressive intellect, when Paul pens this letter he needs a “Get Out of Jail” card. He is in a Roman prison and he has every reason to be weary and to worry and more than just cause to be mad at the world. Surely, Paul is just the companion I am looking for to join this week me in Fannie’s lament.
To my surprise, though, the prisoner Paul does not write the Philippians about being “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Though Paul has every right to do so, he refuses to prey on the worries of those in the Philippian church. He refuses to use his bully prison pulpit to get others riled up by lamenting how unfair the world is being to him, by accenting bad things are going in the world. He does not send his readers a list of all that angers and ails him; instead, he sends them a singing telegram from prison; it is a telegram about his love for them, his gratitude for them, and he celebrates their shared love for the Lord.
Now what kind of fool sings from jail? Read all of Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the answer will be crystal clear. It is the kind of fool who has taken a long, honest look at what really matters in life and then has totally reassessed his assets.
For years, Paul thought his greatest asset was his impressive credentials. He would cite them to anyone who would listen and even while stuck in prison, Paul argues that his credentials are unmatched. He writes: “If anyone does claim to rely on . . . [their religious credentials], my claim is better. Circumcised on the eighth day of my life, I was born of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents. In the matter of the Law, I was a Pharisee; as for religious fervor, I was a persecutor of the Church; as for the righteousness embodied in the Law, I was faultless.”
You can see, Paul did not have a wounded ego; he never struggled from a lack of self-confidence or from uncertainty about his religious credentials. Paul, then Saul, never doubted that he was the cleansing agent of God to fight the growing contagion of Christianity. When the Risen Christ encountered Paul on the road to Damascus, he did not become less confident, but he did change how he measured that confidence. And, it is a changed and humbled Paul who sings from a Philippian cell, “what were once my assets I now through Christ Jesus count as losses. Yes, I will go further: because of the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, I count everything else as loss.”
This week, I went looking to Paul for someone to join me in the deep mire of my weariness, but I soon learned that I had knocked on the wrong door. Paul sings not my lament about all that is wrong with the world, wrong with other people, wrong with our lives. No, he sings a song that celebrates what it means to be called and claimed by God. It is a song that reminds us that we are allwelfare recipients, because we are all grantees of God’s grace that we neither deserve nor have earned, the God who has given us by far our greatest asset – Christ Jesus our Lord.
I went looking for someone to join me in shouting against all that is lacking in the world, in this nation, in my life, and Paul turned the invitation around and invited me to consider all that I have been given.
When I look out on this amazing community of Christ, my lament does not disappear but it begins to diminish and lose its tight grip on me. For I look out and see so many people who measure life by the quality of mercy more than the quantity of their savings, on singers in this choir who exhale praise every Sunday, on behind-the-scenes folks who do the work so that you and I can feast and fellowship on the lawn after worship today, on members and friends who are spending considerable hours making sure that a young Syrian family finds a welcome home here.
Paul was no idiot. He got angry. He got fearful. He did not volunteer to be arrested and tossed into jail. Surely, there were more than a few moments when Paul was weary, when he was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” And, yet that is not the song the imprisoned Paul chooses to sing to the Philippians or to teach us to sing across the centuries. In his encounter with Jesus, Paul learned that the song of fear and anger, weariness and vengeance finally is a scratchy song that skips and repeats like the old LPs, a song that just demoralizes us and divides us and keeps us treading water in a miry pit.
Instead, the song Paul sings from a Roman prison is one full of grace and gratitude, faith and hope, because faith and hope liberate us, grace and gratitude inspire us. Faith and hope send us to the streets to advocate and to serve the most vulnerable among us, to console the wounded and to challenge the powerful, to pray and to protest no matter the results. While fear and anger draw us into the miry pit, cause us to linger on our liabilities, to focus on what we do not have; faith and hope cause us to claim our greatest asset, the love and grace of God given to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I knocked on Paul’s door this week looking for a fellow lamenter and I left wondering what kind of fool sings from prison?
What kind of fool? A fool for Christ! A blessed, determined, compassionate, fool for Christ!
I can appreciate the epitaph on Fannie Lou Hammer’s tombstone, because she had been haunted by evil in ways that I cannot ever imagine. Even so, and even when I am the weariest, if I had my choice, I would ask for a different epitaph to adorn my tombstone, one that read: “Gary W. Charles, a certified, non-apologetic, fool for Christ.”
I certainly am glad that I ran into one such fool in Philippi this week.