July 4, 2021

Shafts of Light, X: Berlin Wird Mauerfrei

Passage: Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
    so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in God’s word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than those who watch for the morning,
    more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with the Lord is great power to redeem.
It is the Lord who will redeem Israel
    from all its iniquities.

In late 1989 Don Dale was in Berlin as a student. He reports that in a world before google maps you need only listen to geolocate yourself within the city. Had the hammering away at the Berlin Wall become just a hushed battering in the distance? You were probably half-mile from the wall. But when the belt and wack of the hammers became a deafening roar? The wall was just around the corner. At all hours of the night from November 9, 1989 onward, the wall was slowly being chipped away, piece by piece.

In the city the wall itself (concrete slabs and barbed wire) was miles long, so there was plenty of wall to come tumbling down. Don Dale knocked this piece off himself. Maybe you have a piece too. I do. For a while it was being sold and distributed around the world: there’s a piece at our Ronald Reagan Peace Garden downstate in Eureka, Illinois, and a piece at the Western Avenue Brown Line. Part of the Berlin Wall is on display in a public place in almost every state in the nation, and tourists of every stripe have carted a bit home in their pocket, or suitcase as well.

It seems strange at first to imagine that graffiti has been turned into stained glass. While Kenilworth Union, the village, and the North Shore in general have a reputation for being prim and proper, genteel, fastidious, dapper, and striving for elegance and sophistication, street art and graffiti are considered vandalism[1]. You could get arrested. You cannot even sell spray paint in the city of Chicago, and in Evanston, its behind lock and key. You have to show ID to purchase it, same as cigarettes. In Detroit graffiti is illegal, not just on public property, but private as well: you have seven days to remove graffiti on your own building before getting a ticket; and permits are required for all murals that in any way resemble graffiti art. So while stained glass windows are fragile in their own right, there is a different kind of fragile impermanence to graffiti that, at any moment might be written over by other artists, the general public, the authorities, or the property owners. The very presence of graffiti on the Berlin Wall stands in stark contrast to the seeming stability, fortitude, and permanence of the wall itself.

So what is graffiti doing in our stained glass window? And how does it tell the story of our faith?

The Mallott Chapel windows were established in the early 1990s, at a time when the fall of the Berlin Wall was still living history. But looking around the chapel, it is this Freedom Window that feels most “Kenilworth Union Church.” Starting in the early 1970s Gil and Marlene Bowen took groups of young people to see the Berlin Wall, or at least travel through it, because his first church was in Germany in the 1960s, where he became friends with East German Pastor Reinhold Schmidt, and endeared himself to the congregation there. At a dinner table conversation early in his ministry here, Dr. Bowen told me, a few church parents asked if he might take their children to Germany to visit and learn. He didn’t know at the time that saying, “yes” in that moment would come to mean two and a half decades of cross-cultural immersion, border-crossings, and East German church-basement communion services with hundreds of young people from this church. When those of you who have long moved away from the area come home for a wedding, baptism, or funeral you say proudly, “I was on one of the Europe trips.” Crossing at Checkpoint Charlie, taking an elevated train over Hitler’s Bunker in the No Man Zone, waiting in earnest while border guards checked paperwork, dancing on a disco boat. I know only the smallest fraction of what that trip meant to you, and I know it meant the world to Dr. Bowen.

So by the mid-90s the wall meant something to this congregation. It had been passed through by so many of you that it became, not just a symbol of global politics, but a place with a sacred history, one that connected freedom to faith.

The wall went up quietly on August 13, 1961. It was later called “Barbed Wire Sunday,” but at the time the world hardly noticed and just went about its business, never thinking that it would stand for long. But soon concrete slabs were added and it became a symbol much bigger than itself. It came to imply freedom (or lack thereof), democracy (or its unremitting foe, communism), and the uneasy peace and fear of the Cold War where an arms race and an arsenal of atomic weaponry meant everyone was walking on eggshells.

The words Berlin Wird Mauerfrei means “Berlin Becomes Wall-less” or “Berlin becomes wall-free.” It did and the world rejoiced.

But one scholar pointed out that, despite the mass celebrations at the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dawn of the twenty-first century has already become a century of walls. The Ancient Near East was the birthplace of the border wall, and today it is “a honeycomb of fences and walls” from Saudia Arabia and Iraq to Israel and Egypt.[2] One ancient Mesopotamian king said during the Bronze Age, this border wall makes us “like birds in a cage,” but those ancient walls offered a certain kind of protection, or at least hoped to.[3] Walls were built to protect the people, children, land, livestock, farmers markets, festivals, and banquets of a city. Walls always seems to imply some kind of outside threat, keeping feared outsiders out, and hostile neighbors at bay. When the walls in ancient Peru or Persia went up, civilization flourished. The armed fortresses of days past made way for musicians, finance managers, architects, scribes, and librarians to thrive. When the walls did the protecting, fewer workers needed to be dragged away to become soldiers. The poets, astronomers, and epidemiologists could do their work. But today’s walls many of them at least, control the movement of people from one place to the next in ways that are just as oppressive, and freedom-denying as the Berlin Wall. How might our own Berlin Wall stained glass window push us to a deeper mindfulness about our neighbors who are walled in, or have their backs against the wall, who seek the same kinds of freedoms that were so well articulated a few decades ago? Where does our country’s long cry for freedom—celebrated today—meet the world that is increasingly being walled in? Does freedom ring?

Today’s Psalm might show us a way through. Today’s Psalm is for anyone who has been in that kind of trouble, walled in, without options, with no way out. It is for those who are behind bars, behind oppressive regimes, blocked at every turn by another set back, another roadblock, another barbed wire fence. And I mean that both literally and metaphorically. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” This “depth” is the deep waters, the cosmic threats, the primordial forces that disorder the world, causing chaos and despair. The “depth” is human violence, human hunger to power, human greed. And so the Psalmist cries, “Hear my voice.” And they say it again in another way, “Let your ears be attentive.” That poetic duplication doubles down on what the Psalmist needs: first they need God to hear.[4] Listen. Take notice. Be aware. Do not ignore. Do not forget. Do not disregard. Hear me the Psalmist asks.

So maybe that’s our first step too. Listen to the pain. Listen to those who suffer. Do not ignore. Take notice. Do not disregard the heartache of others. Listen says the Psalmist.

The Psalmist also waits for the Lord “more than those who watch for the morning,” which tells me the Psalmist understands that for some, the morning may be a given, an expectation, but for this Psalmist, rescue and hope are not a given, but they wait anyway. They do not know when the Berlin Wall will be torn down or if it ever will. It is permanent as far as they know. But the Psalmist waits. More than those who watch for the morning the Psalmist waits. From the depths, from the pit, from the place of trouble, the Psalmist waits. Praying the Lord hears. Trusting the Lord forgives. Knowing that God is never beyond hearing distance, even in the deepest of darkness, even in the farthest wilderness, even beyond the safe walls of the city, where wild beasts roam and bandits await new targets.

Psalm 130 gives us a hint at who God is and therefore how we might be more aligned with who God is. This is not a God who is confined by walls. This is a God who like our Shepherd-God metaphor in Psalm 23, is out beyond the wall, protecting the flock from all that is unsafe, uncertain and unpredictable. This is a God who knows us by name, who finds for us cool streams of water, even when most of the terrain is rocky and uninhabitable mountain or inhospitable vacant desert. This is a God to whom we can cry out from the depths because God is already there, accessible, listening.

There is an ancient Mesopotamian myth that tells of a local deity called “the Guardian of the Sown” who guards the crops, and the people, and establishes a barrier wall. The “Guardian of the Sown,” does not venture out beyond that barrier wall, but just holds the wall, keeping chaos at bay.[5] But the God our Psalmist is talking about is a God whose reach is far beyond this. This is not a God who is simply within the city, within the walls, guarding from within the protected place. This is a God who can hear our cry from the depths, the deep waters, the cosmic threat, the forces beyond all order, and can be our hope and rescue. No matter what terrible place we end up, no matter what trouble we find ourselves in, no matter what place of pain, our God can go there. Our God has the freedom to roam not just the world within the walls, but the unknown beyond the walls. This unbound God can order the chaos, put up walls between the waters above and the waters below, or enter into the chaos itself.

And so by the time we reach the birth of Christ, one of the big questions becomes: why would this God of freedom who can move mountains and defeat leviathans, want to take on the limitations of human flesh. This borderless, boundary-less God of freedom and liberation is a God of such compassion who hears our transformation, our righteousness, our thriving, that enfleshed in the earthbound body of Jesus Christ, God walks among and alongside us, particularly with the poor and oppressed, for whom the world is just a series of walls, a series of stops, a series of roadblocks, and in that deep longing for freedom, Jesus takes on the powers-that-be, seeking the freedom of the people, seeking human dignity, seeking justice, kindness, light and love. Jesus tends to the medical needs of the poor, feeds them, and identifies with them so deeply that he humbles himself and accepts even death on a cross for their sake, for our sake.

So if we are to be people who long for freedom, let us follow Jesus who loves the unlovable and heals the unhealable, who walks the long road and feels the urgency for change so deeply, that he faces the impossible. Let us follow our Shepherd-God into the depths, knowing that beyond the walls of our own making, there is the possibility of a deeper freedom, not just for some, but for all.

[1] Elisa Shoenberger. Despite Graffiti's Global Popularity, Cities Still Criminalize It. July 18, 2019. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-despite-graffitis-global-popularity-cities-criminalize

[2] David Frye. Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick. Scribner, 2018, p. 232.

[3]  David Frye. Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick. Scribner, 2018, p. 253.

[4] Robert Altar. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. Norton, 2007, p. 458.

[5] David Frye. Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick. Scribner, 2018, p. 24.

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