A Pastoral Letter for a Time Such as This

Beloved Friends,
I am writing to you from Lisa’s and my home, where I sit comfortably after a great day—a day during which I had the honor of sitting with some of you and learning more about your stories, I shared some time with Jonathan making plans for the coming months, and I was able to do some study and reading.
In spite of that—or perhaps because of that—while I sit in our dining room, I am thinking of people who did not make it home.
I am thinking of men and women whose deaths we have seen recorded on cell phone video, and who never made it home from traffic stops, from parking lots, from places they found dangerous, from places that filled them with fear.
I am thinking of men and women who take vows to serve and protect, who live for and live up to those vows, who died in the line of duty.

And friends, I am thinking of you.

If you are like me, you’ve spent the day in a bit of haze. Perhaps you’ve been angry. Perhaps you’ve been filled with despair. Perhaps you’ve wanted to march in the street. Perhaps you’ve wanted to circle the wagons, batten down the hatches, and protect you and your precious loved ones. Perhaps you feel isolated by the swirl of opinions and politics that surround us.

If you are like me, you’ve rattled off a thousand reasons, explanations, and what you hope are answers. If you are like me, you’ve been sitting with uncertainty and questions that can only be met with silence. Perhaps a long-held belief was shattered over the last few days. Perhaps a long-held fear was confirmed.

No matter where you find your thoughts, dear ones, I am thinking of you, because you are the Church.

As a people called by God to be the healing, hope-giving Body of Christ, there is much ahead of us. As Disciples of Christ, people who claim to be called to look for and work for wholeness in a fragmented world, there is much work to do.

But if you are like me, you feel the need, on a day like today, to listen, to pray, to breathe deeply, to turn to those who know you best, to re-read the poems, the stories, or the sacred texts that bring what is precious to life for you. You need to grieve before you work.

Perhaps you are sitting with the possibility that you or someone you love might be mistaken as a threat because of skin color, and not make it home.

Perhaps you are sitting with the possibility that someone you love serves in law enforcement or in another career that hinges on trust and vulnerability, and there are times when you feel the ring of a telephone in the pit of your stomach.

Perhaps you grieve the thought of what you thought our nation was, and that seems so far away. Perhaps you grieve the easiness with which hope once came.

As I have been sitting at the dinner table with all of this, I have been thinking of another table: the one we approach every Sunday, and I remember your faces—

You who bring communion and comfort to our homebound members.
You who make room for strangers, who feed the hungry.
You who fill our church and our world with beautiful image, detail, or song.
You who heal broken hearts and broken bodies.
You who curate our collective memory.
You who educate our community’s children.
You who advocate for one another, for our city’s most vulnerable, for people you’ve never met.
You who live quiet lives of integrity.
You who are still newborn, all possibilities before you.
You who have cared for me.

Beloved friends, in this tender time, the Holy One pulls us close, even as the one we name the Christ calls us out into the world to be peacemakers. May this care and call embody the work we do in Christ’s name.

Peace.

For Alton and Philando, ask the right questions.

“Asking existential questions is a luxury.”

Words to a friend from last night, as a group of us sat and talked about life, still-palpable griefs, hopes for children, and questions that remain unanswered–both in figuring out details and in asking those “BIG” questions about what an incident says about our humanity, our world, and our universe.

It was a flip phrase–meant not to dismiss the importance of asking big questions (we were a group of clergy and a heath psychologist, after all) but to emphasize that, in the midst of crisis, there are questions of survival, of maneuvering legal and social service systems, of mental and physical health, of justice as a concrete event that deserve attention and must be addressed before we turn to the speculative, imaginative,  and philosophical/theological.

Today, as I woke up to the news of the death of Philander Castile, on the heels of the death of Alton Sterling, two more names added to a litany of names of black men and women who die in encounters with law enforcement, I thought of an essay I wrote about a year ago which was theological, speculative, and tried to parse the Babel-like confusion of America’s failed conversation on race in light of Ferguson and the #Blacklivesmatter movement.  I wondered if I might have a responsibility to write something similar today.

When I write, I try to be a reasoned, thoughtful voice.  I try to recognize the levels of privilege that shape who I am, how I encounter the world, how I write.  I try to be fair, open to the limits of my own perspective and critique that names those limits.  I suppose I think that makes me a good moral voice, as a pastor, hardscrabble theologian, an advocate and ally.

But today, I keep coming back to the words I shared with my friend.

Existential questions are a luxury.

It’s a reminder, perhaps even a rebuke, to the ways I let my mind betray my heart.

For today, I don’t have good words.  I don’t have sophisticated, heady questions.

I feel foolish for ever asking them.

Today, I have angry accusations.

I have accusations that I want to lay at the feet of our entire culture–accusations that zero in on our gun culture, the ways we portray and conceptualize Black Men, the ways we portray and conceptualize our Police Officers, the way we understand accountability.

The way we, myself included, excise ourselves from the accusations concerning America’s original sin: Racism.

As if our respectability saves us.  As if our ability to write reasoned critiques, smarty-pants answers to difficult questions means that I don’t benefit somehow from the very same culture that bloodies a man’s shirt, kills him with four shots, at the moment he reaches for his license and registration.

So today, I sit with my mixup of anger and sadness.  I collect my accusations and I find my way to a mirror.

But I look to tomorrow.  I will allow my own vigil of anger to pass, and I will look for better questions to ask.

If we are to be anything better than a culture that hammers out a litany of names of dead men, then we must ask better questions:  Critical questions about who gets treated differently under the law, why we ignore the statistics that buoy the claims made by people of color about equal protection under the law.  Measurable questions that lead to policy changes.  Questions about our behaviors that make us better allies.

Our questions cannot give way to ruminating.  Our questions must give birth to change.

Ruminating is a luxury.

Change is what we are called to do.

#philandocastile

#altonsterling

#saytheirnames

 

 

 

 

A Prayer for Orlando

Holy One
It is a familiar grief that we bring before you

How Long,
O Lord

must we etch out the same words?

Words of sorrow
Words of angry grief

and words of disbelief at something that we watch happen again and again

repeated like a sick litany of hate.

We bring our shock, our own agony before you.
We bring our callousness—something that has grown from violence made all too familiar.

Please take these things we bring you,

Gracious God,

for we bring them

that you might remind us

That while it is human to feel shock

It is human to protect ourselves
to cocoon ourselves
from those things that hurt and disturb us

You call us

to be your children
and to be your children is

to remind others that
they are your beloved family, as well.

Forgive the ways we turn away from those who suffer

Forgive the ways we participate in their suffering.

Forgive the way we worship violence
and make idols of the tools of violence.

Forgive us the ways we are unable to forgive
those who seem unforgivable.
even those who perpetrate mass violence

God, we bring not only this

but so many things before you

Our own grief and trauma, from violence we’ve experienced and perhaps never even named

Our own guilt and anguish, from violence we’ve committed.

We bring ourselves, Gracious God.

and we bring all of your children

The young, the old, those who were born
with this morning’s sun,

those who will return to you soon.
May they all be safe in your arms, Holy one.

May you teach us ways of building sanctuary

May there be peace

May there be peace

May there be peace.

Gentrification

My dog digs
trying to set down
roots
she digs up glass
instead

This was an empty lot
for years.

In the short-off
distance, a neighbor
sings that she is a “poor
wayfaring stranger.”

She’s digging in, too.
Her roof is a week old.
brand new.

She ain’t going nowhere.
Not anytime soon.

Walnut Street Bridge #1

IMG_2103

Sun sets.
I watch
glass roll
down

into stone
into water.

It is gravity’s
trick
on me.

For when water
rolls down
it etches the story

of the years into
each rock
but glass moves
only at the pace
of what it reflects

Carving fragile memory
out of light itself,
a split second psalm
for the one who stops
to see.

 

Even the Good Days

“I tell you life is sweet, in spite of the misery…
There’s so much more. Be grateful”

Even the good days in ministry can have their hard edges.  Today was one of those days.

Churches like the one I serve are one of the final places where a person can organically experience intergenerational community.  We’re not a place that’s been created by finely-tuned, highly specific, targeted marketing.

We share gestures, words, and rituals that have been repeated thousands of times in this place.  We create new traditions, stretch our creativity and our tolerance for creativity together.  We are community.

We’re a wide spectrum of belief, health, socioeconomic status, and yes, age.  There are darling babies to dedicate and exhausted bodies to tend to.

Beauty and sadness intersect in those moments I spend with folks who have made it to a certain point–especially when they trust you enough to tell you, sometimes with confidence, sometimes in confidence–that they’re ready.

Ready for whatever comes next.

There are still laughs to share, stories to tell and re-tell, and in some cases, daily exercise classes and ice cream indulgences that bring joy to the day.

But they’re ready.

Today, a Wednesday–the day I set aside for pastoral visits,  I was a witness to a change in someone’s life: not a hurdle crossed, but a final lingering ability lost–gone, forever.

 

He had told me recently that he’d been “ready to go” for a while.  His tone was matter-of-fact then.  But today, as he confronted a life short one more pleasure, one more joy, one more touchstone to the past, his eyes welled with nearly sightless tears.

“It’ll never be the same.  However long that’ll be.”

These words landed hard on my ear.  I couldn’t let them go.

We told stories.  I took his hand. I prayed with him, clumsily, gingerly, inarticulately.

In my head, I wished for more perfect words, pitch, tone. Wished I was a better listener.

Our goodbye was longer than usual.  Perhaps there is a reason for that. Perhaps not.

As I left his room, I cupped his heavy words in my hand and held them close.  It wasn’t my grief, but I decided to carry it with me.

The air was crisp, the sun bright–my favorite sort of spring weather.  I rolled down the sunroof, put on my sunglasses, shivered just a tiny bit, then turned up the volume to a song from my college years.

This is what we do on good, hard days.

 

 

Atheist Ministers and Christian Bakers: A Sermon on Acts 9:1-20

I preached a version of this sermon on Sunday, April 10th, 2016 entitled “Learning to Be The Church: Identity”.  I don’t usually write manuscripts for my sermons, so I’m super grateful to Linda Hershey, who transcribes our worship services for those in our congregation who are living with hearing loss, for the text that is making up this blog entry.  It also allows me to re-write history and destroy evidence of any awkward phrasing or verbal ticks Linda may have picked up on.

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a visionc a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Sauld and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

I don’t know how many of you pay much attention to what is going on with the church in Canada, but there’s an interesting sort of case going on with the United Church of Canada and a member of its clergy by the name of Gretta Vosper.
Rev. Vosper serves as a minister at a small United Church in Toronto, and has been the subject of a lot of media attention, as of late.  She’s currently the subject of an investigation into her ministerial “fitness” by the United Church of Canada.

The Reason?

She serves a congregation of a Christian denomination (The United Church of Canada), and yet refers to herself as an atheist.
Now, it might, at first hearing,  seem like this would be a very clear,  cut-and-dry case.

After all, you might ask, how can an atheist serve as a Christian minister?

But it’s a little more complicated than that.
To understand why it’s a little more complicated, it’s important to dig into the context a little bit.

First, the United Church of Canada is a very unique denomination. In many ways, its history parallels that of Canada.  The United Church formed in the 1920s, as a merger of several Protestant denominations across Canada, and it formed its identity in the 20th century, not unlike Canada, which forged a unique national identity and burgeoning economy over those same years.

As a denomination that emerged out of a merger of multiple faith traditions, the United Church has been a tradition that has concentrated on its commonalities and celebrated its theological diversity.  Among folks who know the North American Church, the United Church of Canada is known for being open and progressive, and in practice, it’s often a place where people who didn’t have a faith home anywhere else feel welcomed.
Enter someone like Rev. Vosper, who was long nurtured by the faith, and felt a sense of calling to ordained ministry.  But, as she reflects in her own writing and speeches, even as she was taking her ordination vows, she felt uncomfortable with some of the theological language, concepts, and constructs that were part of United Church theology, liturgy, and even her ordination vows.

She began to talk about her discomfort with this language in her ministry, from the pulpit, and in other public venues.  At one point, not only nodding to her theological and philosophical questions, but the persecution of non-religious and vocal atheists in religiously conservative nations like Bangladesh, Rev. Vosper began referring to herself as an “atheist,” though we might more precisely refer to her as an “A/theist,” as she does note that there are things she can’t say with certainty about the existence of some sort of divine something-or-other, but she rejects the notion of a “Theistic” God who controls history, the weather, whatever.

Hence–an A/Theist Minister.

Rev. Vosper speaks about this with precision, depth, and, by utilizing a good bit of language from the Christian theological tradition.  As she spoke about her a/theism more explicitly, there were those in her congregation who stuck around, and others who left.  When she made changes to her church’s liturgy–like removing the Lord’s Prayer (because  if you don’t believe in a God who intervenes in the world, it’s hard to pray to “Our Father Who art in Heaven”), that was too much for many people, but there were others who found her ministry quite attractive, and soon showed up to see what this A/theist minister was all about.

None of this was without controversy. But depending on who you ask, the trouble for Rev. Vesper began last year following the violent attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in France.

Gary Patterson, the moderator of the United Church of Canada, authored a statement in response to this act of religious violence.  Not an unusual thing–most mainline denominations offered some sort of statement or prayer.  His read as such:

Gracious God,
By the light of faith,
lead us to seek comfort, compassion, and peace,
in the face of escalating violence around the world.
As we read news reports describing the horrifying situations in Paris,
we offer our heartfelt prayers
for those who were injured in today’s shooting;
for the emergency response crews and police officers who are working toward providing security and safety for all;
for the people of Paris who are mourning the death of loved ones.
God of Epiphany,
We humbly offer you our pain, our bafflement, and our cries for peace,
seeking your gift of transformation and your promise of hope.
Amen.

This is a pretty typical, heartfelt statement.

But Rev. Vosper, who in my reading, sees herself as a reformer, had an indicting critique to offer:

The prayer posted to the United Church’s web portal is one of the myriad responses and I appreciate that we chose to offer it in a timely manner. I question, however, the merit of such a response because it underscores one of the foundational beliefs that led to the horrific killing in Paris: the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined and which, once interpreted and without mercy, must be brought about within the human community in the name of that being. This belief has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory. If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.

(for Rev. Vosper’s full upon letter, please visit her website here.)

It was after offering this critique that the investigation into her fitness began.

For me, Rev. Vosper’s words are a powerful challenge.  Here’s what I hear her saying:

When we, in the name of mercy, invoke God’s name and claim that we, by praying, can influence God’s action in the world, we open up the door to the possibility that people who kill in the name of God  can legitimize their claim as well.

I think there’s a lot to unpack in a statement like this, and I find a lot of common ground with Rev. Vosper:

I’d agree that all language about God is metaphorical.

I also think wed have to be careful about the way we claim God is active in the world.  It’s easy to make claims that are clearly unhelpful, or downright abusive.

We have examples of egregious violence done in God’s name, of course, but it’s also important to consider how we say God is involved in our lives–if we’re involved in an accident, we live, and another person dies–What sort of thing are we claiming if we say that God “spared us” and yet did not spare the other person?

What sort of God is that?

The Notion of God that we claim is at the heart of our identity as people of faith.

As the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we are a people who celebrate an open table.
We say that every one has a place.
That is core to our identity.
We welcome everyone.  Gretta Vosper has a place here.

But here’s the thing: we say that we are welcomed to this table because Christ welcomes us. We are welcomed because we are all valued by a God who welcomes us, who meets us in the real world.
That is our claim, that is what we say, that is the claim that we hang our identity upon.

Sociologically speaking you create your identity by setting limits, drawing a boundary line, establishing a fence that says:
“I belong to this group. And this-this-is what defines this group.”

But in our tradition, we say something paradoxical.  The boundary we set is an open table.

The boundary we set is not a boundary at all!

But how does that play out when we consider the welcome that we offer to someone like Rev. Vosper, for whom the theological basis of our invitation would sound like a false premise.

Well, that’s why I think this story of Paul is so important.

The story of Paul’s first experience of the Post-resurrection Christ appears most fully in Acts, as a narrative written many years after Paul’s death, and in Paul’s own letter to the Galatians.

There are significant differences between the two tellings, of course.  Acts is, in many ways, an idealized version of the story–some of the details are different in the two accounts, and Paul often acts differently in Acts than we might guess he would based on what he writes in Galatians.

But for our purposes today, it’s important to note an important consistency in Paul’s behavior.

Paul shifts from being the persecutor of the ancient Christian community to one who offers a welcome to the community.

And that shift occurs because he finds himself welcomed.  By God. Through Christ.

Rooted in an experience of the Holy, Paul shifts from being the early Jesus movement’s most feared persecutor to its most celebrated host of an open table.

In the narrative arc of Acts, we see his work going hand-in-hand with the radical invitation of all people, rooted in the experience of a God who creates and welcomes all of humanity:

In Acts, the Church makes room for women, for an Ethiopian eunuch, and even in its dramatic opening act, the story of Pentecost, the very notion of church is the creation of a place where all who speak, no matter their language, are understood.

And in Galatians, Paul follows up his story of his Christophany with his argument with Cephas (Peter) that is all about table fellowship–making sure that a welcome is offered, no matter the religious tradition of those who find themselves transformed by their experience of Christian community.

Paul even follows that up with that beautiful poetic statement:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Perhaps, in the case of Rev. Vosper, there is no longer “Believer” or “Non-believer”

The boundaries are–paradoxically, mysteriously–set by our openness.  We need to spend our energy making sure that we are clear about that, not obsess about whether Rev. Vosper  is clear in her beliefs.

We are called to invite and to welcome.  To offer room. That is how we set boundaries.

And that, my friends, is why I have spend the last week absolutely incensed.

I have watched state legislators in our state and in surrounding states design, brings forward and pass laws that have been discriminatory in function under the guise of “Religious Freedom.”

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have encountered a news story about these laws.

There is one in North Carolina passed under the shadow of night, one in Mississippi passed in plain daylight, and one in the State of Tennessee currently awaiting action. Each has its own end goal, but essentially they are  motivated by the same variety of hate and intolerance.
Under the guise of protecting “sincerely held religious beliefs,” they either give business owners the right to discriminate or limit municipal ability to pass non-discrimination ordinances.

It’s pretty clear that these discriminatory laws focus on the lesbian, gay, transgendered, bisexual, and questioning folks, but these laws are so open and so sloppily constructed that many leave other groups vulnerable as well–differently-able people, ethnic minorities, and in some circumstances, women and children.

No matter how you want to argue the legality of these pieces of legislation, in terms of Christian practice, these laws are highly problematic.

You cannot believe in an open table and support these laws.

As a Christian, if your “Sincerely Held Religious Belief” means that you close the door of your business to anyone, you are doing one of two things wrong:

Either your religious belief is wrong or the sincerity with which you hold it is false.

We are called to follow Christ–the one who offers the invitation, to take seriously the example of Paul, who extends the invitation.  In our public lives, in our private actions, in our lives of faith, we are to live in a messy, sociological paradox: The boundaries that we set are not really boundaries at all.

Our identity is built upon our ability to be open, to welcome, to make room for anyone who crosses our path.

Instead of assuming that must transform people–of different belief, like Gretta Vesper, or of different identity, like that oft-evoked gay couple searching for a wedding cake– in our image, we are called, like Paul to be transformed ourselves and spend our lives making room, declaring that there is no difference in the people who are invited and the people who extend the invitation.

If there is any doubt in terms of how we live that out in our public lives, I think the best advice I have seen on that comes from Jesus himself, as paraphrased by my friend Joshua, from the gospel of Matthew:

If a gay couple asks you to bake them a cake, then bake them two.