Day 24: Uninvited

When I accepted a preaching gig this summer (a first since retirement nearly five years ago) it was for two Sundays, one in July and one in August. I kinda knew the second one was always iffy. I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, especially in these years since leaving church, seeing the brutal truth of Amerikkka, and losing my nice.

So I can’t say that I was surprised by the disinvitation that arrived on Saturday. I had preached my one sermon and named, as clearly as I could, the gospel call to repentance of the sin of white supremacy (text of sermon here) based on the assigned lectionary text. What has been surprising is the sweet outpouring of support from my virtual community when I shared the disinvitation on Facebook and the subsequent uptick in reading of the manuscript. If the goal was to foster conversations about whiteness, white supremacy, and the gospel imperative of justice, the disinvitation was probably more success than the original sermon itself. In the ensuing conversation, I was also reminded both of what I treasured of church… and why I had to leave.

This morning I awoke thinking about the verb choice in the letter: upsetting. The “message from the pulpit was upsetting to many”. As I awaken this morning holding that word, I find myself amused. In all the years of writing and sharing sermons, never was I able to so effectively prod folk from a place of comfort. For better or worse, on this ill-fate re-entry I managed to move a community so thoroughly that I got myself run out of town. And I know that means I am in good company.

More I am thinking about the privilege inherent in the message. While Black mothers and grandmothers are burying children whose lives are literally taken by systemic violence, white mothers and grandmothers are concerned when their comfort is disturbed. I am reminded of a time in parish ministry when one Black mom was having to face “the talk” with her son and another white mom was upset that a children’s story about civil rights used in church included the word bomb. Really. Black children were killed by white people’s bombs and a white mother can still demand (and receive) space free of even the word. Our presumed privilege to not be upset is the epitome of whiteness.

What is clear to me on the 24th day of this 56th trek around the sun is that being upset is symptomatic and necessary if (as white folks) we are ever going to face the evil with which we swim. While I like roses and tranquility and warm fuzzies just as much as everyone else, I am keenly aware that Rome is burning and we (white folk) are still blithely throwing gasoline on the fire. Though no doubt upsetting, the biblical mandate for justice is clear and so too the call to speak out. While it may well be too late for Rome, I can sleep at night only insofar as I have joined my voice with others calling for a new and just world order.

And this week I’m sleeping much better than I have in a very long time.
#55andCounting

 

Facing America’s Original Sin, Together (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)

Do you remember where you were on August 9, 2014?

There are dates that are seared into our very beings. Dates we will never forget. Dates that mark before and after in our lives. Some are moments of profound beauty and happiness: 12/18/1991 (the birth of my first child) and 7/1/2011 (my wedding in Iowa with my beloved). Some are communal and terrifying: 9/11/2001 and the vision of fire.

August 9, 2014 is one of those dates.

I remember where I was and what I was doing when the news broke. The emotions that raged are still a knotted mess. Horror, yes; fear, inexplicable but palpable; and (?) shame. Perhaps it is relevant to point out that ours was and is a multi-racial family. Throughout that summer we’d been parenting two children in foster care. The children were Black with a sea of white caregivers; social workers, counselors, teachers, and even foster parents… all white. Racism was raging in our world and the children were struggling for breath in the midst of it. To say that it was a turbulent summer is understatement. Already by August 9th we’d been advised that the children would be moved, our queer family pushed too hard against the racist system. The children were still unaware but I knew that this was the last Saturday morning that I would be braiding hair, already I was up in my emotions. We were sitting in front of the TV when the news broke into the cartoon reverie to tell the story of yet another police shooting, this time a lifeless body left bleeding on the pavement and a crowd was gathering. My fingers slowed and I caught the silhouette of the younger child as she watched the screen in horror.

The injustice of the world was laid bare. Michael Brown was an unarmed teen, just graduated from high school and headed to college, killed by a police officer who found his very presence as a large Black man to be frightening. And when the people cried out in pain, troops descended to quell the outrage.

On August 9, in the year of our Lord 2014, I sat up and listened. With thousands of others, I moved out onto the streets and learned to pray with my feet. This date is marked in my life with before and after.

The gospel this morning opens with a question. What would it take to get you (or I) to listen? Jesus came in all of his radicalness and was met with disbelief. John was deeply pious (deeply religious in every aspect of his life) and still the people were uninterested. ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ What does it take to shake us from the status quo? To create those life changing moments that we mark with before and after?

As I read this very familiar gospel text in the aftermath of August 9, 2014, two things become clear.

(1) We aren’t listening. Things are not getting better, especially not for Black folk. Not in Ferguson, not in St. Louis county, not in this metro area. And in this nation, as a whole, in this current political climate? I daresay things have gotten even worse. Or, at least, more bold. The stakes are perilously high.
(2) We have omitted a crucial piece of the gospel reading. The lectionary conveniently omits 5 troubling verses, Matthew 11:20-24. These are the woe to you passages, with a description of the eternal torment awaiting all those who tarry. And whilst I would be tempted to agree with the Lectionary editors that these verses are a bit too graphic for the Sunday morning crowd, at least in nice white America, the daily news is far more graphic for Black folk here and now. Such that even our willingness (or lack of) to read the gospel in its entirety is reflective of our white privilege.

As I have stood on the streets bearing witness to the other America, it is painfully clear that the stakes are shockingly high. Quite frankly, the woe and doom of Matthew’s verse is pretty tame compared with what I see boiling just beneath the surface in America. If we can’t find the will to dance with Jesusand address the most original sins of our nation, we will live to see our undoing. Bottom line: like it or not, the woes are real.

On August 19, 2015, more than a year after Michael Brown’s murder, my friends sent out an alert. The police had killed another unarmed youth near the corner of Page and Walton and (already at noon) were responding to neighborhood crowds with riot gear and threatening tear gas. I was in school at the time, teaching special education at Southeast Middle, and by the time I got to the scene the police were gone and the neighbors standing around pretty shell shocked. First to have the nephew of a resident murdered in a drug raid gone bad, then to have the police terrorize those who gathered to grieve. We stood in solidarity as the activity buses rolled through and the last round of children were just arriving home. That’s when we saw it, in the distance but unmistakable. An advancing army. The SLMPD decked out in riot gear, fully armed, flanked by tanks, marching in formation down Page Avenue. The line, several soldiers deep, spanned from front porch to front porch, covering front yards, side walks, and the wide city street. Marching in time, beating the batons. Towards who? For what? Yes, there were people filling the sidewalks and yards and (yes) streets; people talking, crying, shouting, grieving. No violence, no destruction. None. I was standing there on the corner at Page and Walton. Disbelieving, but witnessing nonetheless. There were still toddlers and elders on the lawn, school children in uniforms riding their bikes, and adults watching incredulously as the army arrived at the corner. I’m standing in front of the market, breaking no law and knowing that I have every right to be standing right where I was, and also realizing that it wasn’t going to matter.

I remember the unintelligible drone of the loud speaker, reminiscent of terrible nights in Ferguson, and then I saw the flash of fire as it began. In all there were at least four chemical weapons poured out in the neighborhood, none identifiable. Some that burned with increasing intensity when water was used to wash them off. It was a nightmare unleashed that was unimaginable. It lasted for almost an hour with tanks and troops circling round and round a four block area, filling the air and soil and residents with chemicals and trauma. Children ran for the lives, elders too. I stood for a moment, in hesitation and incredulity, as the tank rolled down the side street, right beside me. As it passed me it stopped, and then backed up to where I was standing and an arm extended to aim it’s weapon spray directly at me. I was the target. It’s a moment I will never forget. I dove for cover into a nearby car where my friends were hiding. The police then threw a gas canister directly under the car in which we were huddled for safety. The night was filled with harrowing stories, truly hell opened that night and I saw the living face of evil.

In truth it is this night, more than any other, that changed my life. No longer could I deny the omnipresent evil to which I’d slowly been waking. Every shred of pollyanna was ripped from my heart that night and I was left believing that we are indeed in a battle for the soul of this nation. In 23 years of parish pastoring, I never felt the need to include these omitted verses from Matthew’s gospel. But now I do. We are at a precipice. And woe to us if we don’t repent, and quickly.

Jim Wallis (of Sojourners fame) published a book last year entitled “America’s Original Sin”. The subtitle reveals his thesis: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Importantly Wallis also published a (free and online) study guide and the first three sessions parallel the movement of this morning’s gospel.  

(1) The first is acknowledgement, the wake up call. An honest and heart rending repudiation of the evil that is as close to us as… well, our next breath. Jesus is playing the flute, will we dance?

(2) The second step is education or, as I’ve come to understand, unlearning. This is facing the woe, looking full into the face of the evil, unlearning white supremacy piece by piece. This is learning that Officer Friendly is a white myth, that modern day policing owes its rhythm to slave catching, that the systems that serve us as white folk function to oppress those who are not.

(3) Willis’ third chapter imagining Beloved Community speaks to the third movement of today’s gospel. In the gospel passage, Jesus moves from frustration that nobody’s listening, to a rant about the dire consequences, and then offers an otherwise inexplicable shift to “my burden is easy, my yoke is light”.

If we’ve done due diligence and considered the missing section’s dire prediction about our current situation, this burden is easy stuff doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Wallis would say (in a word): community. We need each other. Robert Fulghum, in his famous piece entitled “All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” had this as #13 on his list: When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.  Watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together. Yes. But Wallis adds an important caveat for those determined to address the evil of white supremacy: notice with whom you’re holding hands. Because our choice of playground buddies will make all the difference in the change that we do, or don’t, make in this world. As Wallis talks about building the beloved community he remembers that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week and that beloved community MUST be multiracial community. 

Curiously the omitted verses of woe from Matthew’s gospel invoke the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Whilst Christendom has tried to make Sodom synonymous with homosexuality, nothing could be further from the truth. Biblically speaking, Sodom and Gomorrah are synonymous with the sin of being inhospitable, of refusing to offer community to the other. Jesus’ teaching is that if we listen, if we offer community, the burden will be easy. But if we don’t? Well, doom. Community is the key; community not with kin folk, community across the lines.

As we follow the spirit to seek the beloved community we will find ourselves in places we can’t now imagine. Looking to how my life has unfolded in these past few years, well, I couldn’t have foreseen it. I’ve been in St. Louis for 21 years, the first 16 years of which were spent in Webster Groves serving as church on Lockwood Avenue. Though I cared deeply about racism and passionately advocated for racial justice, I had little awareness of what it is to be white in America. I had not yet critically examined my own whiteness.

Today I live on the city’s north side, teach at Southeast Middle School in Spanish Lake and daily I consider the ways in which I white. The fabric of my life changed as my community changed after Ferguson and again after Page and Walton. Fostering these life changes has been a close circle of friends, circle that is family, that is for me beloved community. This circle is Black and queer and loves me unconditionally and holds me absolutely accountable, this circle is family that stood with me in the face of police attack and now sits with me at holiday tables. Challenged, empowered, accountable… the fabric of my life began to change.

When you hold hands and cross the road, you will find yourself in places you never imagined existed. And it’s pretty darn amazing.

Here’s the thing: the spirit is calling us to do a new thing and we tarry. The consequences are steep (and growing). But if we dare to embrace the dance, we will discover that the burden is actually easy, the yoke is unbelievably light.

May it be so.

The Curse of Belonging (and the Invitation to Pride)

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.

#NoJusticeNoPride
#BeyondPride

Still Preaching, No Longer Nice

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.
#resist
#StormTheBastille

 

 

 

Hunger in America

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.

Excuses are just that.
#StormTheBastille
#resist

When Less is More

Sometimes less is more.
Sometimes one is enough.
Sometimes the still small voice beckons from deep within.

And this too is very good.

The morning is quiet and I ponder what can be heard when the pace slows. I see the tree still barren even as the earth warms. I hear the rhythm of the washing machine as it cleans up the mess. I notice the anxiety that pops up from the still small space.

This anxiety is part of who I am. It is the energy that makes one drink too many and the bottle not enough. It is the insecurity that makes small talk painful. It is the frightened child who wants to be perfect, and perfectly quiet. This anxiety matters, so I listen this morning.

The world is scary now. In truth it has always been thus. The color of my skin and the situation of my birthing provided privilege that largely shielded me from the most potent portals of evil. But the seed, that fragile place deep inside me that is prey for the tap roots of evil, this is not eradicated with privilege. In fact it is nursed and nourished in places of privilege, my insecurity is the necessary hook for “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (bell hooks) to thrive. And thrive it has.

The urgency of this time is clear, all hands on deck. Yet never have I felt more impotent than as I face the gravity of the evil that confronts us today. In that sentence I see the role that whiteness plays. Once upon a time, when I saw so much less but held the microphone, I felt powerful. Letting go of the microphone, I see so much more but now feel the powerlessness. Discovered, if one dares, is a place of humility, a recognition of limits; perhaps this can be a heart and mind more open to faithful next steps.

Prayer Vigil in Ferguson. Photo by dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Pausing to honor the breath, allowing the anxiety to release, the next right step that is mine will emerge. One tiny step at a time. For the tide to come, each molecule of water must yield to the movement of the whole. Yielding is perhaps the most important work of all.

Relinquishing that which has provided a faux sense of power (uniform, title, microphone, standing), allowing myself to feel the impotence and yet still breathe, this is the call. Here I discover, again and again, a power beyond my own in which I can trust with that scared little monster deep inside. Here she can finally come out and (wtf took so long!) grow up. Here there is healing and, god willing, release from the snares.

Feet firmly planted, anxiety acknowledged, let the footed prayers commence.

Returning to the Water

When I left the church, I was gifted with a story. The story was of a child leaving her beloved playground and heading, alone, toward the river. The metaphor was rich and one that has continued to unfold with new meaning over time. Not surprisingly I have avoided the two most salient pieces: river, alone.

In fairness, all I had known for all of my adult life was church. It was my family, my social circle, my profession, my meal ticket. Church was life. And walking away from church was the most painful (and graceless) thing I have ever done in my life.

A year ago, a dear friend challenged me to start a new church. I held the call, felt it’s familiarity. For a full year I have looked at this call, prayed, talked with others, wondered aloud, started, faltered, prayed more. Recently I met with another friend who suggest that I spend a month in prayer (the infamous 40 days). I fancied Nehemiah’s writing of the vision and imagined that I would emerge with my own.

As the 40 days came round and I found myself still empty handed I felt cheated. And then I saw what was sitting inside me all along. The story. The story given to me, almost five years ago now, was the story of leaving the playground and heading to the river alone.  Not building a new playground. Not replacing my old cohort with a new one. But going to the river, the source itself, by myself.

As I look back over the past four years, I realize that I left the playground and at times ventured to the edge of the water. Most of the time, though, I have sat in the woods and sulked. Transitions suck. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. Holding the challenge from my friends pushed me from lethargy; either build a new playground or return to the story. The more I avoided the story, the more I worked on a new playground, the more befuddled I felt.

What I knew to be true as I first left the playground is that the playground is faux. The river and the forest that surrounds it comes from the earth itself, it is real and sustainable. And harsh. People die. The evil that we wonder about and script on the playground plays out with harsh abandon at the river’s edge. Also true is the intoxicating power of fresh air. The source of life itself is nowhere more apparent than at the water’s edge.

As I gulped in this fresh air, I began to see that as religion functions to interpret experience of the sacred it unwittingly provides a veil. Life lived far from the playground is unveiled, there is slight protection from the elements. PTSD is real for those who pray with their feet. The lure of the playground, it’s safety and conformity, is understandable.

But the river beckons.

What I know to be true as I stand against the rough bark of the tree is that I can’t go back and, at long last, I think I am ready to go forward. My life is now is here, at the river’s edge. Without benefit of clergy, liturgy, institution, or external validation save the sound of the creation itself. This is my call, this is my truth.

And I feel as if the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders.
Maybe because it has.

Leaving Church: Praying with My Feet

Enjoying the early morning quiet of a Sunday morning in an empty nest, I am aware of sadness for the losses. The gift of life’s second half is perspective, the curse is the pile of losses that make possible the view. My journey may have more or less than yours, but all of us have stories to tell.

In this sacred space, with the sound of my dear one sleeping, the birds singing of coming spring, and warm coffee with milk, I am also aware of healing as life unfolds on a path quite unexpected. Despite our best laments, the sun rises and time marches on. It’s been more than two years since I left the church, and I realize that grief has been replaced by wistfulness. After a quarter century of Sundays dominating the week, I savor this moment of quiet and take note of that which no longer catches my breath.

Curious is the role of justice work, indeed civil disobedience, that preceded my time in seminary and has come back into my daily routines. Throughout my seminary days, I fancied that my call was to prophetic witness and in my ordination even chose the text from Luke’s gospel quoting Isaiah. But almost immediately I became a servant of the church, my bread and butter about filling pews, organizing potlucks, making flyers, and meetings.

In my last years in the church, I was passionate about expressing a theological frame that was itself progressive. Often we find socially liberal churches with traditional theology (or the reverse). I suspect this is somewhat inevitable for white folk in America because the texts and traditions that we have adopted were written by and for communities oppressed. There is a dissonance inherent in our reading and a need to do critical (self reflective work) unless we flatten them (read: impose tradition). I was jazzed about working to articulate a theology that was relevant, challenging, and empowering. The path was pretty much unchartered and at points contentious, but worth the effort. And it was great fun, until it wasn’t.

The point of parting is still painful. The words spoken, the letters shared, the allegations levied; these haunt. Cruel, but without which I would not have released my grip. Perhaps I grieve the necessity (my grip) as much as I grieve the series of events themselves.

As I sit on this quiet Sunday morning drinking coffee, the sun now full in the sky, I see the path that is mine today.

Prayer Vigil in Ferguson. Photo by dcarson@post-dispatch.com
Prayer Vigil in Ferguson. Photo by dcarson@post-dispatch.com

While my gratitude has many layers and covers a wide berth of life experiences, as I ponder that which is sacred this morning I am mindful of all that I’ve seen and heard and felt on the streets in #Ferguson. I’ve learned more of what it means to be white, and the importance of #whitefolkwork if we really care about justice. I’ve met Jesus in any number of incarnations, Black of course, and often queer and usually a woman. As I’ve prayed with my feet, I’ve learned that my words get in the way and I’ve had incredible opportunities to listen. The veil is lifted as the sacred dances in the street.

The early morning light is now gone and the busyness of the day calls. There are lesson plans to gather, laundry to start, and a protest to attend (#BlackBrunch).

Church, like prayer, comes in many forms.

 

Church Shopping Begins: Not White, Gay Friendly, Theologically Past Liberal

Today I find myself at a bend in the river that I didn’t see coming.

Our lives were blessed last week with two very precious daughters ages 9 and 10.  For the past year we’ve been planning, taking classes and filling out paper work to become foster parents. And then we waited. When we got the call that Niah and Nae would be coming to live with us, it happened so suddenly that we are still catching our breath.

For one thing, we assumed that our children would be boys. The initial false-start calls had been about boys, white boys. It is mostly boys that are in the system. When we got the call about girls, we were both surprised and delighted.

For another thing, as is often the case in foster care, the children were forced to move without time to gather their belongings. The move for children means a total loss of everything material, and a scramble for the new family to build a wardrobe and the rudimentary trappings of life.

The most surprising piece for me, however, is how protective I suddenly feel for two young African American girls pulled from a world of extended family and tossed into a sea of well intentioned white folk. Social worker, therapist, school principal, and moms – all white women. Everyone is working together and truly impressive in their intention and commitment, but at the end of the day, we bring what we have and I fear that we’re missing a major piece.

As I stood in line with the girls at one of our family’s favorite haunts, Ted Drewes, I experienced in a new way the almost total whiteness of the crowd.  Reminiscent of my coming out experience, I was nonetheless surprised by the experience of otherness. For me, this is an experience that I sought and for which I prepared, for our girls it is not. I looked into their faces expecting to see delight as we partook of the treasured frozen custard, instead I saw distress and heard, “Can we eat this in the car?”

Safely in the car with my dear one in charge of music, the car rocked with girl power dancing and I knew. We need to find at least one community where faces of color are dominant and strong black women are smiling back into the faces of these precious children. But where? I am theological past liberal, having dispensed with the trinity and holding my own with the Friends (Quakers) probably because there are so few words. I suspect my theological qualms are more problematic even than our two-mom family configuration. Nonetheless, I need to swallow my theological attitude and find a church where we can dance as the children (and spirit) lead us.

I posted my query in Facebook: Need to find: racially diverse (not-white), gay friendly, theologically *very* liberal church in St. Louis. Recommendations?

The answers were heartfelt and precious, but illuminating. Several folk recommended a number of really wonderful United Methodist communities.  I think in every case, the churches are pastored by white clergy and in no case are these clergy allowed to honor our family. UMC clergy who dare to preside at same-gender marriages are actually charged and even dismissed from the ranks. While it is heartening to hear of local communities who stand in welcome, I have no desire to participate in an institution that is struggling to see me as fully human.

One friend pointed out the prophetic nature of the query and I pause to consider. Maybe so.

Or maybe it is time to turn the prism. If what our family needs is a place of gathering not headed by white folk, this white woman needs to stop pushing against the current and flow with the river around this bend.

In fairness, the biblical narrative sounds different when preached from a place of oppression. The story was written by and for oppressed communities as a word of both of hope but also of resistance.  Though I had wearied of the story preached from within the affluence of the ‘burbs, I was moved by it’s power in response to the modern passion of Trayvon Martin. Quite frankly, who we are dramatically changes the words we share, regardless of our intent. And today we need to find a not-white preacher.

The girls told me what clothing they needed and I ran around yesterday to find it. This morning we’ll start the arduous but important journey that so many families have faced: church shopping. We’ll start with a United Church of Christ community led by an African American, there are (I think) three in our metro area.

And I’ll watch the girls feet to see if they dance as I learn to follow.

Snow Days Three

Snowmaggedon came at the close of our winter break, unexpectedly extending our vacation by three days. Three is the number of perfection and as I sit snuggled on the couch pondering tomorrow’s return, I find myself grateful for the reframe that these days have given.

Perhaps I should come clean and admit that I did nothing of import for three days. I didn’t. I enjoyed a Downton Abbey marathon (every episode of three seasons before indulging in this season’s opener). I crocheted two hats, two scarves, and a bunch of squares for a maybe-afghan. I stared at the snow and considered the contrasting colors visible from the warmth of my front window. Today I spent the better part of the day doing lesson plans, organizing a new online gradebook, and researching for a new unit; but before this brief burst of energy I spent three full days staring at the snow while my mind and heart cleared.

In my own defense I would point out that the winter break began on December 20th, so we jumped from school routines into holiday ones. Cleaning, shopping, cooking, wrapping, and baking quickly filled the space in my heart and mind that school had occupied. Our adult children filled the house with laughter and I paused to notice the gratitude I felt but as soon as the wrapping paper was cleaned up, I was back to the work of planning for the next semester.

By Friday afternoon, my lessons were complete, computer links checked, and copies made. After a Saturday commitment, I had planned to have a day of sabbath on Sunday before returning to school on Monday morning.

But on Sunday morning the snow began and one day turned into two and then three. For reasons that are unclear (and irrelevant I suppose) I spent each of these luscious days in sabbath and on the couch. At the end of the third day, I was out of red yarn and ready to return to the world. Which came first is uncertain.

As I think about returning to my classroom tomorrow, and spending the day with children who are not in the rhythm of being together, I realize that the peace that attends me is different than that I felt last Saturday. Although anxiety sits in my gut, my mind is no longer racing. My heart feels the tension but holds it gently, now is the moment.

Sabbath is a spiritual practice that is rooted in an understanding that in order to be at one with the source of life we need to let go of our busyness, relinquish our lists, and allow our minds to reset. I don’t do this very well. And the more I try, the more elusive such a state of openness becomes. Given the number of hours that most of us spend in front of computer screens, I’m guessing that the struggle is a common one. To have stumbled into this sabbath was incredible gift.

Three days is enough. After three days fish and company stink, and likewise even Downton Abbey looses its charm. It was after three days that Jesus and Lazarus and Moses all made their re-entry and so must I. Yet just as they were changed by their time away, I come back to the world with a peace that is new.

And it is very good.