Rising up to See Life Next to Death: Reflection on the Events in Boston and Beyond

Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23

I had prepared to say something different, but Monday came and Boston became a focus for many, and as the week went on, things changed. I am not ever sure that words are adequate in this kind of situation. But when I feel compelled to respond, that means I should. As a religious leader, as a person of faith, and as a human being—I feel that I have a responsibility to respond. So I will tell you a story.

This week I was part of PECO Energy Company’s Voices of Diversity and Inclusion event. Essentially, it was an interfaith dialogue [a panel] of five people from different faith traditions. They each shared with PECO employees and executives about their faith practices, the challenges and misunderstandings they face, and how they work with others for the common good. It was a really amazing program: people talking about faith in the workplace! Well, on Thursday afternoon, after the panel, one of my colleagues, a practicing Muslim, turned to me and said:

Josh, the reports are still coming out of Boston.
I hope that the perpetrators of this violence are not Arab.
Or brown.
Or Muslim.
I hope.
Oh, I hope not.

I paused for a moment, for my colleague had real concern on his face. I found out later that his son is a college student in Boston and was due to return to school on Friday. As a parent, my colleague was thinking about a lot of things. Of course, he expressed to me that he wished this kind of violence would never happen in the first place. But he admitted that his initial thought after Monday’s events was clouded with apprehension. He had experienced too many times when Muslims in general were blamed for a wide variety of violent acts or politically-motivated incidents. When tragedies like this occur, his first thought is about the safety of his family and friends who are Muslim or who are of Arab or Indian descent. Will they be blamed for something they have nothing to do with? My colleague is a peaceful man. He also likes to joke around. His son, the college student at Boston University, is a musician and a poet.

I did not know what to say to my colleague, so I just listened. But after we talked again on Friday [he had obviously cancelled his trip to Boston], I felt compelled to say something.

I say this as a religious leader, but also as a person of faith who is friends with various people who are Muslim. What happened in Boston was awful. No one denies that this kind of needless violence is horrific. But actually, what happens in Syria every day is awful. What happens in Palestine and Israel is awful. The murders in Guatemala are horrific. The violence that is happening in Chicago to young people is awful. Any violence is awful, actually.

But over the last week, I’ve heard and seen reactions to this Boston violence turn into blaming. This is what my colleague was apprehensive about. People often blame particular groups of people—simply because of their faith tradition, cultural background, nationality—or even the color of their skin! Enough is enough. Such blaming is extremely harmful. As individuals we are all responsible for our actions. If we hurt others, we are responsible for the injury and suffering we cause. But just because individuals may identify with a particular group does not give us license to dehumanize whole religions, cultures, or nations.

Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, said it best last week:

The first thing we have to do is to signal that [the perpetrators] represented nobody: they didn’t represent young people, they didn’t represent Chechnyans, they didn’t represent college students, they didn’t represent Muslims. The murders of all traditions belong to one tradition: the tradition of murderers.

We are tempted to jump to conclusions and to blame. When we walk through difficult and sometimes violent valleys in life, we are tempted to blame something or someone for our sufferings. We may try to convince ourselves that we will feel better and that our suffering will ease if we make someone or something responsible. But blaming doesn’t relieve our sadness, anger or fear. It just causes more suffering. When we blame or seek revenge, we dwell in hate; we walk the path of destruction. We cause fear in people.

So it is appropriate to hear the voice of Psalm 23—a song that expresses the human reality of walking through deep valleys of pain and suffering but offers a hopeful response. Everyone has to walk through such valleys. But the psalm pushes us to journey through these valleys of the shadow of death without fear. We should not be afraid because we are not left alone. We should not fear because if we walk the path of compassion laid out for us, we won’t stay in the deep, painful valleys forever. Eventually, we will emerge from that place of death to find goodness and mercy. Do not fear. You are not alone.

stillwaterIt is no surprise that Psalm 23 is often read at funerals or during difficult times of loss or uncertainty. The stark images given to us are of green pastures and still waters; good paths stretched before us to walk on. But the darkest valley is still there and we walk it, too. There is evil. There are enemies. There is discomfort and fear. But even so, in the valley and in the midst of fear and hate, there is still oil that drips and a cup that overflows. Goodness and mercy follow us.


tabithaThe story of Tabitha is like Psalm 23 in that it also presents us with images of contrast. A little church in Joppa close to the Mediterranean Sea. A woman named Tabitha [Dorcas in Greek] lives there. Her name, from the Aramaic, means gazelle. She is called a disciple—equal to the disciples mentioned in the Gospels. She is known for her generosity of time and gifts. But beloved Tabitha gets sick; Tabitha dies. The mourning widows of the town prepare her body in the traditional way and place it an upper room. The other disciples of Jesus there contact Peter [staying nearby] to come immediately. He does, and Peter arrives just before the burial. Broken with sadness, the women show garments that Tabitha had made, reminding Peter of her generosity. But Peter asks everyone to leave.

He falls to his knees and starts praying. Then, he says: Tabitha, arise! She opens her eyes and sits up. She takes Peter’s hand and he lifts her up. And then Peter invites all the people to come back to see Tabitha alive.

Remember that the people who wrote Acts were the same authors of the Gospel of Luke. Take a look at Luke and you will notice something. Tabitha’s resurrection story is familiar. When Peter tells her to arise he uses the same word used to describe the resurrection of Jesus [9:22, 18:33, 24:7]. It is also the same word used in the story of Jesus raising a little girl [8:49-56].

The details in the story are very similar, too. First, someone must be a messenger and contact someone, calling them to the place where the person has died. Second, bystanders mourn. Third, during the miracle, people must leave the room or place where the person is. Finally, the person raised up must take another person’s hand. So Acts, meant to be read with Luke, is making a point. What Jesus lived and taught is now being lived and taught in people.[1]

This healing legacy is older, though. In the Hebrew Scriptures [OT], the prophets Elijah and Elisha performed miraculous acts of this kind [I Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-37]. Rising from death to life had been happening, with God’s help, throughout the centuries.

But for the many of us who identify with the disciple Thomas, wanting to see and touch such a resurrection—we wonder about the validity of this. But I think there is hope for us skeptics. Both the Old and New Testaments offer stories of resurrection, but not just of dead bodies. Something is resurrected in people and that something is hope. Human beings are instruments, vessels, agents for God’s transformative and merciful power. Even in times of death and sadness and despair, there is life. There is resurrection.

I guess, with God, rules are meant to be broken. Life coexists with death; joy with sorrow; healing with pain.

I hear Psalm 23 still ringing in my ears. In the valley of the shadow of death, there is still hope; there is still life.

Friends, neither this psalm nor Tabitha’s story deny the pain, suffering, and death of the world. But both say a defiant, confident thing:

We are not alone, even in the painful valley. Someone is there to offer a hand to us.

Even when we feel dead, there is still life. A hand reaches out to us.

And there is no fear.

So in light of this, if you identify as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who said do not be afraid;
if you are a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, or of any faith background;
if you are an atheist or agnostic–

Let us all be advocates and instruments for peace and reconciliation everywhere and now.

If we are finally recognizing that everyone around the world walks through deep, difficult valleys; and that people across the globe, near and far, suffer needless violence; and that hate can grow out of fear and misunderstanding; can we live a double dose of mercy where there IS this hate? Can we be extra peaceful where there is violence? Can we be even more accepting of those who are different when there is prejudice and discrimination? Can we pray even more when despair seems to win?

Will we defiantly and truly live out the no fear in love thing?

I’m convinced that we can be peacemakers and bearers of reconciliation in a broken world. But we will need to acknowledge that everyone, around the world, has to walk through horrific valleys where suffering is real and it’s easy to be afraid. We share this. But when we walk through these valleys, we have a choice.

Will we become more afraid? Will we look for others to blame or even for revenge?

Or, will we walk through those valleys together? Will we accept the hand and help of another who offers to get us through those valleys? And will we offer our hand and help to others when they feel alone or suffer or get scared?

Sacred Scriptures are radically telling us something: do not fear. Again and again the scriptures tell us to not be afraid. Even in the face of death, we should not be afraid.

Why? Because the gospel is a gospel of blessed contrasts: Life co-exists with death. Where there is hate, there is love. Where there is separation there is unity. Where there is ignorance there is understanding. Where there is violence there is peacemaking. In the valleys of doubt and fear, there is comfort and confidence. When we feel completely lost, a path of goodness and mercy is laid out before us.

So friends, what life will you bring to a dead relationship or situation today?

What bridges of mercy and compassion will you build this week?

Who will you reach out to in the deep, difficult valleys of life?

Rise up without fear. Rise up to love. Amen.

[1] John C. Holbert, Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX, http://www.Patheos.com.

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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