03 April 2007

How not to prepare for worship

As in many other Palm Sunday celebrations, our Reedwood children entered the meetingroom waving palms and leading us in song. After a moving series of hymns, including "When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died," we listened carefully to Ken's sermon and entered into the spaciousness of open worship.

The problem was, I hadn't prepared well. We had stayed up late the night before working on our taxes, searching high and low for various bits of paper. This is probably not what was meant by the Friendly advice on coming to worship with heart and mind prepared.

Then on Sunday morning, before meeting, I saw that Sean's Russia Blog had posted a new item, "The stamp of Guantanamo." Sean's post was prompted by a Human Rights Watch report "detailing how the US sent seven 'enemy combatants' held at Guantanamo Bay to Russia. The result was all seven, Rustam Akhmiarov, Ravil Gumarov, Timur Ishmuratov, Shamil Khazhiev, Rasul Kudaev, Ruslan Odizhev, and Airat Vakhitov, were repeatedly tortured and brutalized by Russian police and security forces."

Sean's post haunted me in open worship. I thought about Aleksei Tolstoy's trilogy, The Road to Calvary, whose Russian title translated literally is "The Torture Walk." You probably already know where this is going--how our tax money was used to send seven souls on a torture walk to Russia, and this awkward truth was hitting me on the week we commemorate the death and resurrection of our tortured Savior.

I spoke a few words along these lines. A little later another Friend got up and recalled an earlier Easter season meeting for worship during which a previous pastor had preached on the theme of the spiritual, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" Her sermon had been amplified by a visiting Catholic priest, who said that part of the power of the Holy Week experience was to understand that we had not only been there but that by our disobedience and passivity we had participated in the execution. Having meditated on this dimension of the Passion, however, we would come to Easter and receive the forgiveness and restoration offered freely by God. Our Friend finished his recollection by saying that, as a Quaker, he wasn't entirely sure of this theology, but felt that it included an important insight.

I don't know how many of those present made the connection between the Guantanamo "torture walk" and the Road to Calvary, but the Middle School leader for our Sunday School told me later that a discussion about torture had taken up half the class time. Good! There's no more beautiful way to honor Holy Week than to spread the news: We Christians, disciples of a young man whom the worldly powers tried to humiliate and crush, are fed up with the torture of those created in God's image. We don't want to condone it, vote for those who condone it, pay for it, or obtain "safety" through it.

The Human Rights Watch report says that the worst torture in this case was not done by Americans, but by Russians. It is a meaningless distinction and a foul place to hide. How far do we postpone reform in Russia (as well as here) by signaling that, whatever our public democratic pretensions, we're actually glad that the Russian torturers are available for our use? The worldly-wise will tell us condescendingly that we are blissfully ignorant of the things they must do on our behalf to protect us. But how can they protect us from the corrosion of our souls that results from the acid drip of their cynicism?

Thus might I hide my blushing face
while his dear cross appears;
dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
and melt mine eyes to tears.

(Isaac Watts)

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