As coffee takes hold on day 3 of my 55th journey around the sun, I’m curious about a photo that appeared as a sponsored ad in my Facebook feed. The image is of a famous person that I knew as a child, a child in my congregation.
I am mesmerized by the what ifs and might have beens as roads twisted and turned. By all accounts the now adult person is not only successful but also charitable, and I read on. The connections with other rich and famous folk, oh my. Meanwhile my life took a very different turn and I sit with my curiosity. A brush with one destined to be in the 1% while my life unfolds with those facing the other extreme in our land, I can’t help but be sucked into pondering this one.
I find myself remembering a fork in the road way back when I was a young pastor pushing back when a faction of the church wanted to hire a less qualified but apparently hetero musician. I remember the furor when I shared a children’s story that featured diverse family configurations. And I remember one angry member showing up on a Sunday with a hand lettered “I’m a white male American” sticker; he told me that I consistently addressed only two issues, race and homosexuality (sic). I remember church members leaving. Always more coming, but so many leaving. Honestly even now, decades later, it hurts. I wouldn’t have changed who I am or what I preached, but I’d be lying if I said the partings didn’t each one take a piece of my soul. So I look at the picture of the child now famous and remember the years of peelings and turnings and choices made in her life and in mine.
Marshata says that whiteness (with all of its baggage) is in our DNA as white folk and I know that she is right. While every point of divestment has been true and heartfelt, so too I have felt (and feel) the cling. What if … is the entrance to the rabbit hole but also the place to discover the confession that beckons. I remember courageous stands, and also cowardly dodges. My song is genuine but impure.
The bird is singing on the wire, a little too loudly for my taste. But the song is clear and strong, a call to our truest selves, to humility that enables greater empathy. Pushing against the DNA, letting go of nostalgia’s lure and resentment’s bait, I find a path breathing the simple rhythm of life’s longing for itself. Watching the bird sing where it is, I know that this too is my call. To sing my song as it is where I am. Changing, evolving, halting, imperfect.
Five summers ago I journeyed to the ocean on my birthday and found balm but little direction. Later that summer I travelled to the northwest (first and only trip in that direction) and the great owl cried as I found my truth, taking a sharp fork in the road that had once seemed certain.
One thing I have learned about me, I am a tenacious clinger. (Which should be little surprise given that my lesbian self stayed in a hetero marriage for nearly 20 years!) As I’ve thrashed and spun in these intervening years, so too did the world at large. We moved from one of the greatest presidents perhaps of all time to one that is likely the most corrupt and certainly inept; as my personal life finds grounding, I am keenly aware that our nation state is unraveling. I feel the pain of the world in my inner most being, but at the same time bask in the coolness of this sunny morning breeze holding the pieces and cherishing the beauty. Today I am 55 years old and, five years in transition I am yearning to begin a new kind of reflection.
No doubt broad strokes of systemic change are needed and desperately. Pulled to the puzzle my gut aches and my blood pressure races. In the sweetness of this morning I hear a different call, a call to the bird song, a call to remembering who and whose I am, a call to build and share the compassion that is in such short supply in our world. What I know about me, learned over and over and over again (why is once never enough with life’s most painful lessons?) is that righteous anger (though certainly worthy) leaves me in knots and aching for a drink. (Ok, a bottle. Or two. But that’s another story.) What I believe about that which I call sacred is that our small acts of compassion are cumulatively powerful. While anger is sometimes all that I can feel in the face of the evil made manifest in this cruel world, the only significant tool at my disposal (and then only if I choose to use it) is compassion. Not passive acquiescence but a commitment to truth telling born of love, a letting to of windmill tilting and snide sarcasm. (Well, a commitment to *attempting*.) As I consider my inclinations de jour, I confess that a commitment to practicing compassion will require moving beyond emotions and acting as if.
Revealing in the beauty of this morning, gifted with a slow rise and greeted with profound love, the path so often foggy is in this moment clear. Love is the way, the only way, one seemingly inadequate encounter at a time.
Here’s the full video of #KamalaHarris skewering Sessions. She is beautiful and fierce and I want to be on her team.
The gift of the morning was time to find the video and listen uninterrupted. She is clearly a trained prosecutor. She is also an amazing act of grace under pressure. She is the real deal.
As Sessions squirmed and cried (almost literally) “you’re making me nervous”, McCain interrupted Harris (really) to rescue his friend. (Assuming that all aging white men are friends, in the least they share club cards.) McCain literally cut into Harris’ five precious minutes and made way for Sessions to meander through a nonsensical non answer. As time was called, Harris smiled magnanimously and said, “I guess the answer is no.”
I’m left to wonder if McCain would be so rude to any other Senate member?
The misogyny and white supremacy of the moment oozes through the screen.
But brighter beams Harris’ power.
I miss the affirmation of belonging that I felt at church. A random Facebook post this morning with a church-familiar phrase evokes profound longing to sit again at the table. And little wonder for by the time it wasn’t, church was the one place in the whole world where I felt safest, most assured that my most authentic self was valued and valuable. Most being the key word for truly every relationship has limitations and one that is both voluntary and employment is necessarily fraught. Now far from the church with the early summer combination of family gatherings, anniversaries, and time to process, I find myself trying to make sense of tables and belonging.
For the weekend I was immersed again in church and family (the origin kind). Time and distance offer perspective and different this time is the view of the systems. In particular I find myself watching patriarchy play and (more importantly) consider the seat in which I used to sit. I begin to get more honest about my role in that place, my privilege but too my culpability. While considering my own loss and gain, I begin to see how my individual choices affected those not similarly privileged. We are individuals, we are also in community. And our choices have consequences that ripple.
Keenly I am aware that though I feel the loss of place, the sense of belonging was always tenuous and conditional. Unspoken were a host of expectations, silent rules being all the more binding. Nice is the one with which I most commonly tangle these days, but looking more closely I see and feel so much more.
To be clear, the benefits from having a place are extraordinary, perhaps most clearly assessed in their loss. But as I survey the ruthless political landscape upon which we find ourselves in this patriarchal season, I wonder at the cost. The pageantry of the church is unquestionable beautiful when done well, but I am keenly aware that simultaneous to the beauty is a concurrent gala in D.C.(Road to Majority) featuring law makers intent on legislating away what limited rights women and queer folk have managed to garner. More locally the Cardinal’s announced that this week that they will celebrate Christian night at the ballpark featuring a notoriously anti-gay (Christian) spokesperson
. The cost of the patriarchy is death to those who resist. All the while none of the hard won rights were ever fully extended beyond whiteness, whiteness the unspoken system dominating the scene. What if I dared to trouble the whiteness in my life?
Strangely I find myself drawn to the quirky teachings of the Apostle Paul in this season of my life, he who tried to make sense with and for those pesky Jesus followers who were not Jewish. These “gentiles” were Roman citizens who had a place at an albeit different table; a place of privilege and belonging in a cruelly divided world. Unlike the Jews already outcasts in the Roman patronage game, the gentiles faced a host of different choices in daring to believe Jesus about God. In a world not unlike our own, Paul challenged the gentiles to let go of their privilege in order to find new life. He talked about salvation, safety, as believers dared to step away from what was known and familiar and (yes) legal into a world which was visibly tenuous.
In this season of life, away from the familiar tables, I wonder anew about Paul’s message and the veracity of his promise. The truth will set us free, he promised in a sometimes shrill and often foibled voice. The previous divisions (jew and greek, male and female, slave and free) no longer have a place; the binaries are out, we are one in the body. An ultimate message of unity. Maybe so. The irony that invitation is made visible apart from the table doesn’t escape me on this quiet summer morning. And I wonder what Paul would have to say about all of that. I’ll add it to a list of my questions for the salty saint.
In the meantime, I hold the wheat as the chaff falls away. Worthy is embracing our truest selves seen most honestly in contrast with the systems that would define us. I consider the power of Stonewall and the early Pride celebrations with the daring displays of patriarchy-denying selfhood shared in community. At its inception, Pride was the creation of new table of belonging. The incorporation of Pride has domesticated the wonderment and brought the celebration into mainstream acceptance leaving many of us wistful for the true if limited rough edges before Pride was considered a profitable commodity.
From these ancestors too I find encouragement to step onto the road less traveled. Here, on this road with brambles and without fanfare, I can rediscover the self that is true and companions worthy of the work.
White teachers who intend to disrupt white supremacy in predominantly Black schools have a particularly challenging relationship with white peers.
Teaching (like physicians and clergy) is a profession of cats. We are not herd animals, we are fiercely independent and our classroom is our fiefdom. And, not unlike the aforementioned professions, there is a code about how we will (and won’t) treat our peers.
For me this is fraught. In part because for at least a couple of classes each day I am a co-teacher (the second teacher in the room, the special ed teacher – a relationship already fraught). Also true is that I honestly don’t intuitively know the code. Even where I do there are situations that demand that the code be broken but too often I lack the finesse to gracefully know when (and when not) to speak out.
The school year is over but I am holding a situation that I will be unpacking throughout the summer.
As the school year lumbered to a close, r.o.y.s. (remainder of the year suspensions) were the order of the day. While I know of at least 30 students suspended (in a student body just over 500), I know there were more. Several of my colleagues were delighted at the growing number. One danced in the hallway with glee. I, on the other hand, was horrified. This divide of delight vs. disdain re: suspensions does not break down exactly along lines of race but it’s pretty damn close. And that should tell us something.
On the second to last day, I was in the classroom with the dancing colleague and she was telling the students about their unworthiness. They were then instructed to play a game of Pictionary which, haltingly (and miraculously), they did. Two of the students, boys with diagnosed attention and hyperactivity disorders, were first standing at the board, then dancing, then pretend boxing. Of course it is horseplay, not allowed, yet also a daily occurrence. There was absolutely nothing that was new or unusual. But on this day the teacher announced (loudly) “fighting! you’re out!” with a tone that sounded triumphant. She proceeded to leave the classroom to make an official office referral. The students were sent home on r.o.y.s., missing the final festivities of the school year. Another child who’d been sitting quietly in the front row now proclaimed, “she’s just trying to get rid of us”. Out of the mouths of babes.
What is important is not so much the activities of the teacher about whom it appears that I am writing. What is important is how I, the teacher witnessing the thinly veiled racism in this classroom, react and respond. What was I doing as I sat observing the oppression? This is where the rubber meets the road. This is my lane.
Full disclosure, I am so fed up with this particular teacher and their immature and petty abuse of children that I inwardly yawned. Another day, another manufactured drama. This lack of response is my culpability.
But when the child named the oppression, I jumped. I called the child back to where I was sitting. She was hesitant but her chin was defiantly pushed out. I asked her what she saw, what she heard, what she knew to be true and affirmed her words. I reminded her of the importance of honoring her instinct, being true to her community. I talked with her about a coming day of justice, and the importance of being awake for it. Judging from her nod and her stride as she went back to her friends, I think we heard and affirmed one another.
The teacher was now back in the room and I was silently fuming. I slipped out in search of the children pushed out, asked our floor administrator for location and asked if I could take them with me; they had already been sent upstairs. I called the Assistant Principal. I was told that it was “too late”, they were going home. “But they were just playing. I was there. I saw. There was no fight.” But rules are rules, I was told. Never mind that all year we allow (and unintentionally but no less culpably encourage) horseplay; for the last couple of weeks of the school year, blink wrong in the wrong place and you’re gone. I want to blame the children; after all, they know this teacher was itching to get them out and, damn it, they let her win. But as I reach for that card I see that it is more blame the victim, more oppression, more white supremacy. (I need to be honest with myself that I went there, I did.) Where I need to be looking is where *I* have been, and should have been, BEFORE this incident unfolded. And why I wasn’t faster to respond when it did.
What I am needing to process this summer is the line between between being a teammate with my colleagues and standing up for children. While the end game, I would suggest, is getting white teachers out of Black schools (ending loan forgiveness programs that lure them and make it super-profitable), for the foreseeable future about half of the teachers in this setting are white. And too many have absolutely no critical awareness of their whiteness and no interest in learning. (To this end I have and will try, but what I hear in response to challenges of whiteness is incredible defense.)
Here again, my colleagues’ willful ignorance is not my lane. What is my lane is discerning when being a teammate functions to provide cover for white supremacy. I need to learn how to spot and respond faster. To do this I need to see my own motives more clearly, my own defense and deflection. The work is urgent because children’s lives hang in the balance.
For as long as we are in these settings, we have the responsibility to see our own whiteness and actively work to unseat the bias of white supremacy. Are you interested in joining this conversation, to learn and/or to provide accountability? Please be in touch.
Rainbows were popular when I was a kid and, like every wanna be cool kid in the late ’70s, I had my very own pair of rainbow suspenders. Pushing back the curtains of memory, I’m pretty sure I had mine before Mork’s was famous. But truth be told, the memories get mushed. Clear is the memory of the rainbow again a few years later, when I was a young adult in Wisconsin campaigning for Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition. Rainbows meant happy inclusion, promise of new life, good stuff.
Hard as I push through the memories, I can’t find a single one from that era that links rainbows and gay pride. In retrospect, I can make the connections and tell the stories. But in the late 1970s when I was a teen (and even into the early 80s as I was coming of age), gay and pride were never heard in the same sentence. Rainbows were still more about unicorns and Care Bears than calls to action for justice.
Unbeknownst to the youth in southern Michigan, Gilbert Baker was about to change all the rainbow symbolism for the coming generations. An impromptu sewing project for a San Francisco rally produced the now iconic rainbow flag, the symbol for LGBTQ pride. Baker died yesterday, just 65 years old. But his legacy, if not his name, is emblazoned in our cultural imagination. And his legacy lives.
I find myself wondering about the power of accessible symbols, how my own journey into and back out of the closet may have been shaped by the absence. I notice that, having watched Kaepernick first kneel and then remain kneeling even under immense pressure, many of my students made visible choices to opt out of the once-requisite Pledge of Allegiance. Role models, symbols, touch stones are life giving as we find the path that is ours in this world. Even more so the presence of symbols are invaluable when our path diverges from what is considered normative.
Admittedly the rainbow is kitsch. Proudly I remember the “Rainbow Fish Tree” that we designed at church in the aftermath of Matthew Sheppard’s murder. The tree was simply an emptied Christmas tree, topped with a Rainbow Fish, and weekly filled with ribbons expressing the gathered community’s commitment to seeking justice. It was the same tree on which we later placed sponges when James Dobson went to President Bush’s second inauguration and attempt to gay-shame Sponge Bob. (This landed our two minutes of fame on (then) Olberman’s Count-Down show, another fun memory.) Every year we conversed about the Epiphany tradition with a mixture of humor and pride, ’cause it was definitely ugly-cute. As I think today about Gilbert Baker and the enduring legacy of the rainbow flag, I wonder how the presence of the Rainbow Fish Tree informed the hearts and minds of the children in our community. I have to believe that the quirky symbol was empowering as it stretched imaginations and engendered conversations.
The challenge with symbols, of course, is that we can’t control how the message lands in every heart. Nowhere is this truer than with the now familiar #BlackLivesMatter yard signs. When we lived in almost-all-white-Dogtown, we proudly kept one in our yard. But I’ve had several Black friends and colleagues express displeasure with the sign. True is that every one of us encounters the symbol uniquely as we bring our biases and experiences. Also true is that the bearer of the #BLM sign has displayed a conscious intention to make public a commitment to justice. And that symbolic statement is substantive.
Growing up in southern Michigan in the 70s meant that there were few, if any, visible symbols to claim the not-mainstream path that is mine. But as I remember Gilbert Baker today and push back the curtains of memories, I remember raised fists. Remembering Black power fists and feminist fists, I realize the significance of the Ferguson fist print now hanging on our wall. Symbols matter.
Today I see rainbows and I feel empowered to live the life that is mine, married with a woman and together fighting for justice. Today I light a candle for Gilbert Baker and the saints who made this day possible.
The news of the day is Trump voters feeling betrayed and I awoke pondering patriarchy and the destructive social (and economic) systems with which we unwittingly make pacts.
That Trump voters are experiencing broken promises is really no surprise. Hierarchical dehumanizing systems are constructed with human carnage at their very foundation. The human ego has an unparalleled elasticity that enables us to construct, and indeed escape to, alternative realities where we find ourselves superior and our concerns central. So long as we are compelled with belief, we will march in lock step off the cliff. Indeed, we are now doing so.
Lest we miss the hook, I would suggest that we look much closer to home. As a woman who actively resists the white patriarchal capitalist machine, I was surprised to discover that I’d raised a son who didn’t. Equally I have been surprised to discover how patriarchy functions, post divorce, in my extended family of origin. I type these words and would love to rant, but the real concern is not the persistence of patriarchy but rather the surprise of the one who claims to resist.
Despite my commitment to the politics, despite my work in the institution of church, and dogged work on theological language and imagery, the bottom line is that I lived in, fed on, and profited from an institution built by the white patriarchal capitalist system. I was in it. My children were washed in the waters not only of the mythic blood of Jesus but the brick and mortar church, and all that comes with it. While I talked about the waters of Mary’s womb and the land flowing with milk and honey, I also knew how to soften challenge with a smile, how to defer in speech and posture, how to survive and (yes) prosper in the patriarchy. No doubt my children learned from both the explicit and implicit messages, and too the duplicity.
I survived. Quite well, in fact. Until I dared to believe that I deserved something different, something more, something apart from the patriarchy. As I stepped away and claimed my truth, an absolutely predictable unraveling began. Likewise predictable was my surprise.
Because we always think that somehow we are special. That the crushing weight of the machine will give us a pass. That our years of allegiance and toil have given us particular grace. That we are, whatever definition we give to the “we” and the “us”, included and privileged in a system of patronage. That we are, well, individuals.
Particularly toxic in the American mythology is the promise of individualism. This promise is the hook to our ego that will make a poor white coal miner in Kentucky vote for Donald Trump, believing that rage focused on the other will provide blessing to us, that we (whomever the we are) are somehow different, special, deserving. This hook is what makes a starry eyed young mom believe that she can raise a son in the cesspool of patriarchy and not have him grow up and look down; that her teaching, her love, her sacrifice (and no) will transcend. This misguided notion of singular superiority, this ego, is what drives us to drink and shop and sex and watch our minds into oblivion because truly the ego can never be sated.
Salvation isn’t in the ego. It will never have enough.
And our surprise is indicative only of our misplaced trust.
Wherein lies our hope? Perhaps the unlikely promise accredited to Jesus that even the blade of grass has value; not in isolation, not as an individual, but as an integral part of the whole. So too the feather on the bird, the grain of sand, the ant, and me. Neither greater nor lesser, but one amongst many. At one with, atonement. Radically inclusive not as we bring them to our table, but as we step away from the table and sit amongst creation feeling the ground beneath our feet and rediscovering ourselves in the eyes of our neighbor.
Sometimes when I am in a sacred circle of queer folk, I catch a glimpse of who I was before I was a white woman in America.
Once upon a time I was a 20-something seminary graduate working with men who were homeless in Phoenix. Senior Bush was president and Senator Kennedy was still preening as an advocate for the downtrodden. I was driving to work and Kennedy was on the radio talking about the importance of a minimum wage that was sustainable and the concession that the wage would apply only to employees after a predetermined training period. I was livid and began yelling at the radio.
The dates have changed but the conversation is the same.
At the time, I knew how grotesque and misleading the conversation. I knew that those MOST vulnerable were those working day labor, those who slept in flop houses and (yep) shelters. Day laborers are “new hires” every single day with no chance of ever getting anything above the most minimum of the minimum wage. In other words, the words were simply that: words. Empty, meaningless, help absolutely no one who was hungry and homeless words. With a new theology degree, a belief that I had some “call” from a higher power, and eyes on the street, I commenced to spend nearly a quarter century preaching about justice.
Fast forward: nothing improved in this nation. In fact we are going backwards at a clip that is simply mind numbing and utterly terrifying. The already frayed and failing safety nets, fundamental to survival in an laissez faire capitalist society, are now simply being removed. This week the current president unveiled his budget plan which cuts after school programs (and meals) for children and Meals on Wheels for seniors. Like, really?
So I spend my early morning penning an article connecting a local shooting with its root cause (hunger) and find myself on FB in a war of words with a privileged white man defending the shooting because he works at a really great food pantry in the area. Um, yeah. His thesis is that because there is at least one bountiful food pantry, no one has an excuse to be hungry. As if hunger ever demanded an excuse. As if standing in line for a charitable handout is ever a positive experience. As if the bag of discarded groceries is ever the same quality and choice as the bag one would choose.
Can we talk about the food at the pantries, for just a moment? Can we talk about the day-old bread, the yogurt at (or beyond) code date, the scarcity of meat, and the labor intensive bags of (unseasoned) rice? Can we talk about the presumption of food storage options, the presumption of utilities to power stoves and refrigerators? Can we talk about the questionnaires, the ID requirements, the carefully documented visits? All of these are important conversations, but not mine today.
Bottom line: We need food pantries. And we need to share out of our own pantry. But neither are a substitute for justice and our charitable contributions do not not ease the guilt of our intransigent involvement in an economy that quite literally robs food from the mouths of children so that the uber wealthy can eat caviar. Judgment of the one who heads to the nearest supermarket to pick up dinner with a gun (plentiful) instead of a credit card (denied) is misplaced. Judgment belongs with the denial of access to basic life necessities and the proliferation of fire arms, not with guy who went in search of dinner.
But here’s the rub: if we dare to see the problem in it’s enormity and our (white folk) complicity, we quickly become paralyzed. If we see pitiful folk not able to help themselves, we can muster charity, feel good about ourselves, and believe that we’ve staved off hunger for another day. If we dare to see the inequity of the distribution, the fundamental injustice, and the desperate state of things, we are justifiably fearful. If we consider our own abundance (as white folk) in tandem, we cannot help but feel the sting of shame. And if we’re not feeling it, we’re not seeing it.
Now, what to do.
I really believed, as only a 20-something can, that I could preach us out of this sinful place. And trust me, I preached good and long and hard. While I do believe that what ails us as a nation, the original sin that manifests in such grotesque mischaracterizations of justice, is at its root a spiritual problem, churches are (ironically but essentially) unable to address this tap root. By their very definition, churches exist to comfort folk and insofar as they trouble the waters funding and stability are quickly lost. If we are ever to address the root, we (white folk) are gonna be troubled. Very. Even as I preached my heart out (quite literally), I always smiled and tried my best to keep a polite and palatable coating on the most pointed of messages. Always end with a word of hope, always end with something sweet.
This morning as I considered the death of man accused of taking food from a nearby grocery, I am no longer beholden to the church and find myself not very nice. Spicey would be the best face, down right antagonistic is probably closer. But the hunger that I saw as a young woman has intensified in America and is currently reaching catastrophic levels. And this even before the latest budget proposals cut even more safety nets.
So if you come on my page preening about your work at the food pantry, expect pushback. Trust me, my sharp tongue is about as good as it’s gonna get on this road to hell.
If it ain’t justice, I’m not buying.
Last night in St. Louis a man went to his local Aldi store and never came home. Apparently he was attempting to leave the store with food for which he hadn’t paid. A security guard tried to stop him. The man showed a gun and tried to leave, the security guard persisted and then fired a gun. The man is dead.
The investigation and report will center around the guns.
Unfortunately the conversation won’t be about the proliferation of guns. That’s a conversation we need to have. If EITHER the man or the security guard had been without one, there would be no blood on the pavement. No, we won’t talk about the militarization of the police and now even the armed rent-a-cop services. Instead we will talk about the he-said-she-said of who showed and/or pulled whose first. Quite frankly, in the heated moment that ended in bloodshed, with testosterone and adrenalin racing, the finer points are all but lost. Now it’s just a blame game.
But I’m still back at the alleged crime.
This wasn’t a hold up. This wasn’t a break in. This was a man trying to get food to eat. One witness said that it was “meat” and I found myself wondering if that makes any difference. Is it a larger offense to steal a steak than a loaf of bread? Would the guard have been less likely to persist if the man had taken Ramen?
Where my heart is stuck in my throat is the bitter truth that MANY people in America are HUNGRY today. With inadequate (and sometimes no) money to buy groceries, even at Aldi.
And do we really want to live in a world in which the consequence for stealing* dinner is death?
(*I use the word stealing hesitantly because fundamentally I believe that the fruit of the earth belongs to the creatures of the earth. Theft is when the oligarchs hoard the food and dispense it in limited supply while the people starve. I would contend that the food belongs to the people. But that’s another story for another day.)
In the opening scene of Disney’s Aladdin there is a chase between a hungry youth who’s taken a loaf of bread from a vendor (without payment) and an enforcer who is destined to destroy the youth. Watching the scene with my babies (20 years ago?), I was still in the negligent-naivete that our community was free from that brutality, that we were somehow enlightened. (White supremacy much?) The cruelty in the film was for me palpable and at odds with the upbeat music, but I consciously took solace in my ignorant ideas.
Recent life experiences have disabused me of the naiveté. I know that hunger is all too real, and for people whom I love. I know that the state (in any number of costumes) is ready to pounce at the slightest misstep to shed blood and/or fill for-profit prison beds (21st century slavery). I didn’t need last night’s horror to prove the point.
I awake this morning and write about it, though, for any who still might be sleeping. The hunger stirring in this land isn’t hypothetical and it’s not relegated to philosophical discussions of liberation. People are hungry.
Every morning I stand in a classroom with middle school children as a voice drones over the loudspeaker telling us to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Every morning I make a choice.
While I stand with the others, daily I resist as my arms hang limp at my sides and my mouth remains closed. Early in ministry I was gifted with this clarity: I pledge allegiance to no nation-state, my allegiance is always, only, to God.
Over the decades the names I use to describe the object of my allegiance have shifted, so too my understanding of how to be in service. What is constant is an awareness that I answer, always and ultimately, to a power that is beyond my knowing. As I stand in resistance these days, I do so with substantial privilege but without the shield of church. To serve an unseen deity behind the banner of an institution is one thing, to claim this same devotion and duty apart from institutional sanction feels at points both vulnerable and exhilarating.
To whom or what does my allegiance now lie?
Last month was fifth consecutive February spent in prayerful discernment of call outside the church. It began as fitful as every other, but ended this time with precious clarity and release. In truth, part of me never expected my leave-taking to be permanent. The public me was clear and strong and steady; this church gig has been a good and faithful road, and it is finished. This me requested (and received, kinda – but that’s another story) official retirement from the church. Yet there was a very real part of me that was storming off the metaphorical playground, wishing and hoping and praying that I would be invited back. As I prayed through the drab days of February for the fifth time, I considered potential avenues for coming back. Starting a church seemed the most compelling; but I also logged onto the denominational site and began completing my paperwork to job search. Simultaneously there was push back from the universe in ways I could not ignore. Ultimately the truth (that I’d carried all along) was again clear: it is finished. My allegiance is neither to nation-state nor institution.
But where then does my allegiance play out?
One of February’s gifts was serendipitous conversations with friends rooted in my childhood and an emotional journey back to adolescence and the moment of call. I found myself reliving the moment that I identified in evangelical circles as my “born again” experience, but it was more an experience of transcendence. I was in my car, the sun was setting, and in that moment a clarity, a certainty. I knew that I belonged to the rhythm itself, to the movement of the setting sun, to life. Yes. Yes to God and all of the trappings that came with the yes in American Christianity.
Tragically the yes came with patriarchy and white supremacy and capitalist nonsense that left me making a big salary and feeling broke, married to a man when I really longed to be with women, and drinking bottles of wine to keep all of the lies spinning in unison. Now as I peel back the years and the layers, the yes is still very clear. Ironically, or perhaps predictably, I discover that the trappings actually functioned to mute the call and hijack my allegiance. All these miles and years and necessary dramas later, the call itself is as clear and strong as it was that day nearly forty years ago. And my answer is still an unequivocal yes.
But called to whom?
The call is to community, to our neighborhood, to the earth itself. The church to which I am called is the community, cyber and embodied and work and leisure. The church is the world, our neighborhood, our circle of friends. My allegiance is to this earth and the holiness of this moment and the passion for justice that burns bright even now. Freed from budgets and buildings and committees and institutional politics, my work is clear. To see and tend and nurture and celebrate that which is holy, here, now. To offer prophetic witness to that which is just, to find and share courage in this era of latent evil unleashed. To live this ordinary life bearing witness to that which is extraordinary.
My pledge of allegiance is always, only, to life’s longing for itself. Distant as the farthest star and yet closer than my next breath. And it is very good.