Tyranny and Rhythm

A friend from high school days offered a twelve day journaling experience beginning at the equinox, the first day of Autumn, my favorite season. She sends out a prompt (a series of prompts, really) each morning and invites us to write as we’re led. It has been an invigorating and challenging journey. I haven’t been sharing what I write to date but I do want to share what I wrote for today. Below is the prompt, followed by my response.

PROMPT: Something I’ve heard repeatedly over the past few weeks are these words, “I’m just so exhausted.” I’ve heard it in reference to having to wear a mask. I’ve heard it in terms of having to wait out the coronavirus. I’ve heard it in regards to politics and the pace of the news cycle. If you too are feeling exhausted in certain areas of your life, try to identify the things that are depleting you of your energy. 

After listing the things that are zapping your energy, try to think of antidotes for each of them. It’s okay if the antidotes are not realistic. Let yourself dream a bit. 

Think about the flow of energy in your life. How does your energy fluctuate over the course of a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime? What is your energy level at this point in your life? What’s your energy level now during this equinox season? 

Imagine for a moment life without having to live by society’s clocks or calendars.  Describe a life in which you could create your own rhythms and live according to the seasons. Think of it as creating your own almanac.

RESPONSE: I have sensed that feeling of exhaustion in myself and in others. For me, part of it is recovery from summer. I just don’t function well in extreme heat so summers are always rough. That’s a part of my life every year, a regular rhythm of depletion and replenishment. Fall restores my strength, my energy. However, this time it goes far beyond simply season change. I think the exhaustion I’m feeling and what I see in many others is the sapping of our minds and our souls at living in dueling universes. Reality is exhausting right now. We’re in a pandemic and death is a much more stark reality than it normally is. Add to that the 24-7 news cycle with its daily, and seemingly hourly, updated “body count” and that feeling of tiring dread never really goes away. The pandemic is accompanied by an economic collapse that is bizarre for many of us. Millions of people out of work and yet real estate prices and movement are soaring, the stock market continues to trend upward which makes clear to us that we live in a moment in history when “the economy” is not real. Money is imaginary and the government can just create more of it out of thin air. As a country, either we put a man in or he stole his way into the highest elected office in our system who is the perfect illustration of this tenuous situation. He proclaims his wealth but won’t release his tax returns. Why is that? As we’re discovering, part of it is that he has broken innumerable financial laws by not paying taxes. My best guess is however, he knows if his returns are released we’ll all see that the emperor has no clothes. His wealth is an illusion as there is nothing to shore it up or sustain it other than an image of being wealthy. I won’t focus on it today but just mention that all of the above doesn’t even take into account the burgeoning racial crisis in which we find ourselves.

So this is reality. Meanwhile we have an entire political party creating an alternate universe with straight faces, one that is so preposterous that a child could see through it (the emperor has no clothes!) but they pump out falsehood and lawlessness with no sense of conscience or remorse. This is the party of family values, of Evangelicalism…and their “christian” base laps it up and defends it vigorously and violently. Up is down, down is up. Bill Clinton’s immorality was reason enough to remove him from office; Trump’s is a sign of strong leadership. (Author’s note: For any who think I’m somehow beholden to the other party, that would be incorrect. I’ve chosen to withdraw loyalty to any party as a means of seeking to live in the one Kingdom that actually lasts. Feel free to ask me about it.) Those of us who try to live with a grip on truth and reality are left emotionally and mentally spent which also decreases our energy levels, even physically. Unlike election years past, we live with a dread that this horror is not going to end any time soon, no matter the real outcome of said election. Knowing all of this, is it any wonder we’re exhausted? If we had a rhythm, it has been completely disrupted.

I wrote all of that, I think, to address this idea of rhythm. It has been an ongoing inner – and sometimes more public – conversation for me over the past several years. How much has the measuring of time in hours, minutes, and seconds damaged us? Long since past is the quaint notion of day/night, summer/winter, planting/harvesting, of living according to Earth’s natural rhythm. We are slaves to the clock and frantically try to accomplish everything possible according to the hour or even the minute. Keeping time in such detail deludes us into believing that all things are of equal importance and to fail to accomplish every task in a specific number of minutes or hours is total and complete failure. Manic submission to the clock has made production our god. If we’re not “productive,” we have no real value. It’s funny, no matter how many studies clearly demonstrate that true productivity is not tied to hours and minutes, and in fact being focused on hard and fast schedules actually decreases productivity, we refuse to budge. We MUST live by the clock.

As my readings include a portion of the Gospels each day, the example of Jesus is always in my mind. I think of the various places in his story that he said something to the effect of, “It’s time.” This never indicated, “It’s 1:00 so we must get moving to accomplish this task.” It was always more, “The moment is ripe so now we act.” Jesus didn’t live as if there were only so many hours in a day and so many minutes in an hour. He lived by a rhythm, a lack of hurry that allowed him to sense when the time was right. As a culture, we refuse to allow ourselves to live with any sense of natural rhythm. And our souls slowly die.

Henry Ford was an American icon. Why? He perfected slavery to the clock. We don’t say it like that but it is in reality what he accomplished. My question is, did he in any legitimate way make the world better? Steady paychecks? For many, yes. But is the steadiness of the wage worth the destruction of our bodies, minds, and souls of a bland devotion to hours, minutes, and productivity? And when we consider the way this bondage to “time” and “achievement” have permeated our culture so that it even holds sway in areas that were never intended to be timed and measured in these ways, education and faith. Again, is it any wonder we are dying as a people, inside and out, when we hold fast to this flawed perspective on life?

Part of my frustration is not having an answer, an antidote to this brokenness. In a culture such as ours, it’s difficult to live in rhythm because everything is organized around a clock: doctor’s appointments, church services, coffee dates, working out, meals, school (is it any wonder students struggle with asynchronous online education?), and so on and so on. My heart keeps longing to find some place in the Canadian Rockies where I can remove myself from the tyranny but I know the reality: I will take myself with me to that place and the tyranny will accompany me. It is ingrained. God help me find a way to move out from under its rule.

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There Really Is No Excuse

In 1997, I purchased Dallas Willard’s, The Spirit of the Disciplines. The book was already nine years old at that point, having been published in 1988. For 23 years, the book sat on my shelves-moving all around the country with us on multiple occasions-and remained unread. As I was unpacking the books from a box recently to put on a bookshelf in our house, I came across this classic. Finally, after 23 years, I was ready to read it. I confess Dallas Willard’s writing style has always been difficult for me; he’s not a quick read. It took me a few weeks to get through the 270ish pages of the book, but it has been worth it. I’m not sure I would have understood most of what he was saying in 1997. In 2020, I read in awe and wonder at the words he offered and how prescient they were for our time and how timeless they are for all times. 

Keep in mind, my friends, when I refer to Willard’s text here, these words were written in 1988. You know, the culmination of the Reagan years, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, before the national rise of Bill Clinton, four years before Donald Trump made his cameo appearance in Home Alone 2. Thus, the words were not at that time directed toward any specific politician or political issue. The book, rather, decries the false dichotomy in “Christianity” between conversion and discipleship, arguing that discipleship is the only way of Christ and not an option for those who “wish to go deeper.” He spends the last quarter or so of the book describing the compromise and dangers that result from the watered down tiering of the Christian life. Again, it is like he knew exactly where the church, particularly evangelicalism, in this country was headed. What follows are simply my thoughts on today’s scene with reference to Willard’s truth and wisdom. The quotes all come from the sections near the end of the book. Perhaps someday I’ll write a bit more from the earlier portions. (Note: page numbers are from the paperback version, published in 1991.)

On page 249, Willard writes, “Turmoil, insurrection, and revolution are inevitable in an open society where the officials are corrupt.” While I would posit that no institution whose end is the obtaining of power can be anything but corrupt, I believe we are seeing right before our eyes the single most corrupt administration centered around the ego of by far the most corrupt “human being” to ever occupy the office of President in the history of the United States. Donald Trump winks at his base by donating his presidential salary while making tens of times more money than that salary by using his own properties to (allegedly) conduct government business. He extorts leaders of other countries by threatening to withhold funding unless they do him political favors. He commuted the sentence of his favorite henchman, Roger Stone, as a means of guaranteeing he himself is never brought to justice for crimes he committed prior to and during his time of being in office. The list goes on much longer but if you’re a fully committed Trump lover, you will dismiss all the corruption and if you already agree that Trump is completely corrupt, I don’t need to convince you.

And yet, more than 70 percent of white evangelicals still support this morally bankrupt con artist. Beloved friends and family members, who wouldn’t want their daughters or granddaughters to be alone in a room with him, will wholeheartedly vote for him in November. How is this possible? Again, reflecting on Willard’s argument that discipleship is not simply an option: “Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10). The cross-shaped yoke of Christ is after all an instrument of liberation and power to those who live in it with him and learn the meekness and lowliness of heart that brings the soul to rest.” (p.263) When we choose to live in the murky waters of “converted but not a disciple”, it is inevitable that peripheral things will fill the space in us that are intended solely for Jesus himself. In American evangelicalism, this is never more clear than in the realm of politics. Jesus calls us to follow hard after him and, in that following, find liberation from the political machinations of this world. In Matthew 22:21, Jesus tells his disciples to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” (slight paraphrase) In short, if Caesar demands taxes, pay them. But NEVER give to Caesar that which is eternal. We traverse through empire, another expression of Caesar, but empire must never have our allegiance.

So where does this leave us in 2020? My friends, there is absolutely no way to square a vote for Donald J. Trump with the Word of God. You know, the Word described in John chapter 1: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” There are many who will proof text Bible verses to create an argument for supporting someone who is so antithetical to Jesus but the living Word of God, Jesus himself, finds no agreement with a “man” like Trump. Rather than pulling out a verse here or there to defend a position you’ve created for yourself, why not examine the entirety of the gospel as found in Christ. God did not elevate this “man” to high office; people who claim the name of Jesus but refuse to live as his disciples did. In 2016, I felt for those who held their noses and voted for him because they were so afraid of Hillary Clinton. I didn’t agree with them as I believed then and still do today that choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil. I can no longer sympathize with people who claim to be followers of Jesus who will still vote for Trump in 2020.

Make your arguments. They are empty. Let’s look at the most common one. Donald Trump is NOT pro-life. He’s not even anti-abortion. In 2015, one year before he was elected, he said in an interview–public record–that his sister would make a great Supreme Court justice. The same sister who supported partial birth abortion, the one who wrote, “It made no difference where the fetus was when it expired.” This wasn’t “old Donald Trump”, it IS Donald Trump. If we move beyond single issue voting, the Trump who took out a full page ad demanding execution for the Central Park 5, the teen boys who were wrongfully arrested, illegally interrogated, incompetently represented, and imprisoned before years later being exonerated by simple DNA evidence (one of these boys wasn’t even IN THE PARK at the time of the crime)…that Donald Trump is ramping up federal executions after 17 years in which the federal government executed no one. Executing even though the families of the victims have publicly expressed they have no desire to see these executions carried out. Remember, he commutes sentences for (and will pardon before he leaves office) his own accomplices but is a tough guy, law and order charlatan when he has no skin in the game. Trump disparages and demeans the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised, Blacks, Mexicans, you name it. He treats children as animals. Donald J. Trump is NOT pro-life. Your argument holds no water.

Be advised, voting for someone other than Trump does NOT mean you are voting for Biden, just as it didn’t mean you were voting for Clinton. If you are convinced it is your duty to vote, a take that appears nowhere in the teachings of Jesus and frankly cannot be supported in the whole of scripture, vote for someone you can be proud of voting for or at least someone of whom you won’t have to be ashamed and do mental and theological gymnastics to rationalize. I’m sure you can find someone. While I don’t feel any obligation to vote, I will be marking my ballot in November for Mark Charles. You should check him out: www.markcharles2020.com. He’s a decent man, a legitimate pastor and much more, who earnestly desires to make this a country in which all people are equal, all people are free, and all people have opportunity. Will he win? Not likely, not in a system full of dirty money and dirtier people keeping the worst among us on top through the two dominant parties. But you know what? If enough of us with a conscience start to speak up for someone like Mark, perhaps others will listen. I’m willing to try. As John Pavlovitz pointed out in a recent blog post, when I vote for someone other than Trump (in my case, Mark Charles), I’ve won. He may somehow win this election, I can’t imagine how, and his vapid fanboys will posture and threaten. However, they’ll have to live with the stain of having supported this wickedness and my conscience will be clean. I hope, I even pray, he’s gone when this election cycle is over but either way he didn’t get to the White House with my support and this is one thing no one can take away.

In his Forward to Brian Zahnd’s book, Postcards from Babylon, Walter Brueggemann wrote, “…the way of empire can never make us safe or happy.” If 2020 (and realistically, 2017, 2018, and 2019) hasn’t proven that for you, you’re simply not paying attention.

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My Behind the Scenes Hero

In 2005, I prepared to move my family yet again as I tried to find a fit in church ministry, a place that would allow me to resolve all the issues I felt inside at being a pastor, a place where I could settle in and stay long-term for my family’s sake and even for my own. Our conference superintendent at the time was convinced that the issue was “calling” but location; that I had been in more rural settings when I was obviously better wired for city and suburban work. There may have been an iota of wisdom in that final part, but it became clear that my unsettledness was far deeper than geography. But that’s a story for another day.

Because our group (conference) was pretty small, it was impossible not to have some sort of encounter with folks from other churches at some point, even though there was a fair amount of physical distance between us. As such, I had created a list of sorts in my mind of the people who were not going to like me, with whom I would simply not get along. I realize this is stupid and not very Christ-like, but it is who I was in that moment. On that list was Dorothy. It seemed we were on opposite sides of every issue that ever came up in our conference and I figured Dorothy was going to hate me. And I was absolutely…WRONG.

What I found in Dorothy, a woman in the same general age range as me, was a life full of childlike wonder, of faith that was tested frequently and not found lacking, of grace and hope and joy and love. If I had a new idea, Dorothy would get on board and lead the charge. It may have been something she hadn’t done or even thought of doing before, but she was always willing to try, to put the idea in front of others in the most positive light possible, and to give it everything she had, whether it was an amazing success or a complete failure. Dorothy was one of my biggest cheerleaders, a compassionate friend who made life bearable on the bad days and beautiful on the good. I’m not sure why I was so worried and why I chose to so badly misjudge her but I can say this without equivocation: Everyone could use a Dorothy Anderson in their lives.

Over the past few years, and particularly this past year, Dorothy has had some tremendous health issues. Much of what she has known as her life up to this point has had to change. The Dorothy who loves people and is always ready to head out for the next great adventure has been slowed, even stopped in some ways. She posted on social media this week that she was going in to have her foot amputated. My heart broke. My inner being screamed, “WHY? Why Dorothy? How is this in any way just or right?” And I think it is fair to have those questions. But here’s the thing about Dorothy. Her post wasn’t self-pitying or complaining; it wasn’t a statement of anger or resentment. Dorothy approached this as yet another adventure, a chance to learn something new about herself, her God, and her world. She has demonstrated grace and humor in what has to be a deeply difficult season. And while I’m not entirely surprised, I am in complete awe. Dorothy will overcome. She just will.

Why do I write this in this space? Because I know Dorothy reads my blog posts. She is one of the very few to ever comment here. She encourages me, even (or especially) when I write things that are difficult. She loves me unconditionally. So, here in my little corner of the blogosphere, my most public forum, let me say clearly: Dorothy, you’re my hero! I’m inspired by your spirit, moved by your grace, and touched by your love. You have given so freely to so many people like me and you continue to grow through all these experiences…grow not to hoard new knowledge to yourself but to share your life and journey with others to encourage them along the way. I love you and I’m thankful for you. You are in my prayers as you move onto the next season, the next leg on your journey. Grace and peace to you, my friend.

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Confession

In the first week of June I wrote about the murder of George Floyd and what I could feel in that moment as someone who has never been so much as inconvenienced by racism. I don’t say “not impacted,” because I believe we’re all negatively impacted when our society allows, and even embraces, systemic racism AND discrete acts of racism. Ultimately though, as a white male, racism didn’t prevent me from living whatever life I chose to live. Since then, I’ve consciously chosen not to write but rather to listen and process. The world doesn’t always require my voice. Today, with the passing of John Lewis, I feel compelled to write. I write to confess and to repent, to commit to continuing the journey I began several years ago but attempted just to enter via an on-ramp without ever really owning who I had been and what had shaped me to that moment.

I came into the world in that strange cusp of Baby Boom and Gen X. Most social scientist say the Baby Boom ended in 1964. I was born in December of 1964. The two most important events in American history of that era, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, were fully engaged when I was born. JFK had been assassinated a year and a week before my birth. Robert Kennedy and Dr. King would both be gone before I started school. Richard Nixon resigned the presidency when I was I was going into fourth grade. These events that so clearly altered the social landscape were not written in our Social Studies textbooks so pretty much all of our information and context for these essential milestones was anecdotal.

As if the timing of my birth and childhood weren’t enough, the places I grew up add another layer. I was born in Missouri. Missouri may or may not have been an official Confederate state – officially in the Union but the governor set up a shadow Confederate government and the 13 star Confederate flag includes Missouri – but the values of this state very much reflected the values of the American/Confederate South. There was a clear sense of “them” in our communities and in our families. And while there were individual friendships with people of color, Black people in general were held in low regard. I heard members of my extended family use terms like “good n…/bad n…,” “a credit to his race,” with some regularity. To be fair, I never heard these expressions pass through the lips of my own parents. For that I’m eternally grateful.

My middle school and high school years were spent in a small mining and ranching town in northwest Colorado. While people were coming from all over the country to build the power plant or work in coal mines, racial diversity was never really a thing. In fact, there was a sense of pride in the town that the few Black families who attempted to move in and work and live there never stayed very long. As an awkward, short and skinny outsider who was moving into the community at 11 and whose dad was a pastor for the first time, I craved belonging. One way to belong was to accept and endorse the underlying racism that coursed through the community. Not overt, rarely directed at a person. Even then, my heart would be checked if I crossed that line. However, the racist humor and demeaning racial comments. The caricatures we would create when we would travel to Denver for track meets and compete against Black athletes. The use of denigrating racial stereotypes employed to insult people of my own race who drew my ire at a given moment. It was then, and remains today, shameful. The N word rarely came out aloud, as my mom would have slapped the snot out of me for using that term, but the thoughts and attitudes behind that evil word were at work in my mind and my actions.

Somewhere in adulthood, through the grace of God and the wisdom and patience of friends, I came to realize just how vile this mentality is. I began to cringe when I heard others say things, always reminded that there was a time I was comfortable saying the very same things. And so, I began to actively attempt to atone for my sins. Over the years, I’ve sought out opportunities to work toward racial reconciliation. I’ve actively attempted to become a voice and an advocate for the rights of my brothers and sisters of color. I learned, especially while living and working in the Minneapolis area, how urgent it is for whites to submit to the knowledge and authorities of our Black friends when trying to create working relationships and pathways to reconciliation. And ultimately, my life has changed. But one thing has nagged me along the way. You see, penance without confession is somehow empty. I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down with anyone and confessed the ugliness that soiled my soul and shaped my behavior. And so, today for me is about going back to that place where I first sensed I was wrong and needed change and simply admitting, “This is who I am, or at least who I was.” I own my sinful arrogance and the hurt I caused. And I plead for forgiveness, both of God and of my fellow humans, especially my Black neighbors and those who were influenced by me to act in similar manners. It was wrong, it was vile, and it was unforgivable. So it’s a big ask, to ask your forgiveness. And I certainly understand if there are those who can’t give that forgiveness. My commitment is to put the person I was further in my rearview mirror each moment of each day, to continue to seek reconciliation, to be a voice for Black people in our community, our country, our world. I’ve tried to live the message for years, but to be clear, I want to say without equivocation that I wholeheartedly believe that BLACK LIVES MATTER and I grieve the years I spent contributing to a culture that didn’t support that very basic, very human statement.

What does all this have to do with John Lewis? Well, not knowing much about the Civil Rights Movement while growing up and then joining the legion of idiots that bought wholeheartedly into Rush Limbaugh back in the 90s, I somehow believed that John Lewis was on the wrong side of things and defined him as an enemy. I’m grateful for friends like Dr. Efrem Smith who opened my eyes to the stories of men and women like John Lewis, who showed me the passionate heart for God and for the oppressed that really is the crux of the gospel of Jesus. While saddened that I spent far too many years believing the worst about a man like John Lewis, I’m thankful that the opportunity to change that view and appreciate his life and his work came well before he died. John Lewis, who put flesh to his faith and absorbed the worst that humanity has to offer, who nearly died from a beating while simply marching peacefully for basic human rights for his Black brothers and sisters, was a giant. And when people like Rush Limbaugh deny that, it really only shows how small someone like Rush really is. Godspeed, Mr. Lewis. If God is merciful, I’ll get the opportunity when all is made new to sit at your feet and hear your story from your own lips. Until then, with God’s grace, I will continue to seek to live out the heart of your convictions until I draw my last breath.

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We’ll Keep Him Right Here Where He Is

For nearly nine minutes he knelt, applying the pressure of his body weight to George Floyd’s neck. When Mr. Floyd pled, “I can’t breathe,” he stoically remained in place, hand in his pocket, showing no emotion, simply and surely snuffing the life out of one of God’s beloved children. Even his fellow arresting (former) officers suggested Mr. Floyd was no longer resisting and that they should turn him up on his side so he could breathe. “No. We’re going to keep him right here where we have him.” Eight. Minutes. Forty-six. Seconds. “I can’t breathe.” “Please.” “I can’t breathe.” Crying for mercy and finding none. “I can’t breathe.” “Momma.” “Please.” “I can’t breathe.”

“For our nation and all who govern, that all citizens may dwell in peace and enjoy the blessings of justice and freedom, we pray: Lord, hear our prayer.”

Each morning, with few exceptions, I get out of bed, head downstairs, pour a cup of coffee, and read and attempt to pray. This is part of my morning prayers for the quarter that began yesterday. Over the course of the past week and a half, since the horrifying video of (former) officer Derek Chauvin callously applying his knee to the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, it is abundantly obvious that far too many of our neighbors see no hope of justice, no hope of freedom, and certainly no sense of blessing. What we observed on our TVs or our computers in our protected and privileged bubbles was simply the inevitable outcome of a system that treats people of color with suspicion, disrespect, and disdain. We’re distressed by what we see as the worst of “us” but refuse to grapple with the “us” Derek Chauvin represents.

In the days following this ugly but not isolated incident, I reached out to an African American friend who has been family, a dear brother, for nearly 30 years. First, I wanted to affirm my love for him and his family. Then, I wanted to confess my feeling of being stuck, of not knowing what to do in this moment. His advice was simply, “Go with your intuition.” Perhaps I should be encouraged. This friend knows me well. But not as well as I know myself. My intuition so often lets my fellow humans down. I drive past the young black man standing on the shoulder of the road in handcuffs while the police search his car knowing that if they pulled me over, I wouldn’t be in handcuffs. My gut tells me this is wrong, it’s unjust. My desire for comfort allows me to wonder what he did, keep driving, and find something more pleasant to occupy my mind. I have that privilege. It’s not going to happen to me. It will most assuredly not be me in handcuffs on the side of the road.

The public protests began, eventually spawning rioting and violence. (How much of that rioting is being instigated by dog whistled interlopers remains unknown and will likely always be unclaimed.) We, in our comfortable white suburban castles, lob verbal grenades: “This is why THEY are in the situation THEY’RE in.” “THEY are destroying THEIR OWN neighborhoods.” And there is the crux of the matter. Why, 400 years after white Europeans first began to inhabit this continent, is there still a THEY? What, in the name of God, is wrong with us? For 400 years, Derek Chauvin has been applying his knee to the neck of George Floyd. For 400 years, George Floyd has been pleading, “I can’t breathe!” And we have said, “No. We’ll just keep him right here where he is.” Is it any wonder there is rage? When people of color are not safe in their homes or in the streets, when those who are charged with serving and protecting can, with impunity, target and mistreat them, when every African American man’s mother has to worry when he leaves the house if he’ll return, when that type of oppression is a daily part of life, why wouldn’t fear and frustration turn to rage? Perhaps, rather than ask, “Why aren’t we doing something about this?” we should ask, “Why haven’t we acted to do something about this when the opportunity was right there in front of us for generations?”

My son will be 23 in a few weeks. He lives in the heart of Philly. He walks everywhere, including the two miles or so to work. He rides public transportation, he visits local bodegas and bars. Of course, I’m his dad, so I worry a little. But I never worry that the troubles he may encounter will be based on the color of his skin. He’s free to move about the city, to live his life, knowing that if he were in trouble he could reach out to a police officer and receive relief. Why is it normal, in what is billed a free country, that a black father can’t have that same sense of comfort? My hope, going into this post that has taken me over a week to even get to a place where I felt I could publish it, was that I would have some answer, some plan of action for myself. In this moment, all my answers and all my plans seem trivial or trite. We live in a broken world, where people who claim the name of Jesus march in lockstep with the evil that emanates from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As long as we’re (and I’m part of we’re) willing to sacrifice the lives of the oppressed in order to perpetuate our own comfort and privilege, there’s no hope. I’m angry. I’m forlorn. I’m a white man.

Henri Nouwen used original language to define the concept of compassion: (Latin) “To suffer with is compassion.” (Hebrew) “Womb. God, hence, is a mother who suffers the suffering of her children in her womb.” I think it is incumbent on me to suffer. I need the angst and confusion. It is the only chance I have to repent and turn.

“Father Abraham, at least send Lazarus back to my brothers to warn him of this horrible place of suffering so they will change their ways.” (paraphrase) George Floyd was Lazarus.

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Where I Come From

Yesterday would have been my grandma’s 98th birthday. She was an interesting person. I wouldn’t call her warm or affectionate. She had a difficult time with touch. If there was any hugging to be done, I initiated it. I don’t think the words, “I love you,” came easily for her. Later in her life, I realized how important it was she hear it from me, so every time I called her, I ended the conversation with, “I love you, Grandma.” Sometimes she responded in kind, other times she rushed to get off the phone.

I’m pretty sure she loved me and can see the ways she tried to show it. When I was in my first year of college, I would often go to her house for weekends to eat decent food and do laundry at no charge. She would always have me take my laundry bag downstairs to the washer and she would wash, dry, and fold everything, making sure I had clean and neatly folded clothes to take back to my dorm room. During those weekends, we always made a trip to the grocery store, where she would basically allow me to empty the shelves of all the snacks and junk food I liked to take back to school. My hallmates loved my weekend trips to my grandma’s house!

She was loyal to her causes. She kept to a strict schedule, until age and health finally caught up to her, of going to the nearby elementary school – coincidentally, the first school I attended – to volunteer as a literacy aide. I wonder how many dozens of young adults in the South End of St. Joseph are able to read effectively because Leeta Brooks sat with them day in and day out while they practiced their reading. She doted on the teachers she worked with. They were family to her. One of her proudest moments, which she would probably deny being proud of, was when she won the Volunteer of the Year Award for the St. Joseph School District. She was nothing, if not committed. She was difficult to know and understand, but I miss her still.

When these birthdays come along, I tend to get reflective and probably even a bit morose. I think about the family I come from, what my ancestors have passed down to me and what I see of them in myself. I am, each of us is, a unique blend of those who have come before. My Grandpa Brooks worked with people all day and when he came home, he headed to his garden to work the soil and be alone. I don’t garden, but I do tend to isolate at the end of day. I love people but after hours of being “on,” I’m exhausted. My Grandma Brooks, described above, carried a lot of insecurities throughout her life. I struggle with insecurity on a lot of levels day in and day out. My Grandpa Pritchett was the funniest human being I’ve ever met, he had such a quick and twisted wit. He also had demons of rage and addiction that mellowed with age but never fully went away. I make people laugh consistently. I’ve also struggled with anger and rage, with depression and anxiety. My Grandma Pritchett, my favorite of all, laughed easily and loved the little ones. She was always so happy around babies. I’m a complete mush mess around babies and children. My grandchildren are the best gift I’ve ever received.

I’m all these things, for better or for worse, as they have been born or bred into me. There’s much more, of course. We all inherit the good and the bad, the joy and the sorrow. I have to ask myself regularly, though, if I will only be the sum of all the parts that have been handed down. While I can’t choose what I receive, I can choose how what is given me will be used in my life. Where I come from is simply that. It doesn’t have to determine where I am or where I’m going. It is part of me, but it isn’t me.

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Who Closed the Church?

Today is Memorial Day here in the United States. I come from an extended family on my mom’s side that take seriously their commitment to decorate graves each year on this weekend. My grandpa served in World War II, my uncle during Vietnam. And while I don’t know all the stories, I’m pretty sure a great uncle and a great grandfather also served in the military. We’re fortunate as a family that everyone returned home physically intact, even if there were some dark places in their minds and hearts from the experience. While I am not gung ho in my support of countries and wars any more, I certainly respect those who served to protect the lives and rights of people whom they would never meet, people who would treat them disgracefully at times and seemingly waste the sacrifice these men and women made.

I wanted to include that prelude as I move toward the issue that is most on my mind today. As we continue in the season of COVID-19, the topic of “reopening” headlines the news and dominates conversations. Among those making the most noise are those demanding the “government reopen their churches.” I can almost hear one of my heroes, Inigo Montoya, saying “You keep saying those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.” Let’s be clear, my friends: No government has the power to close any church, nor did any government in this country attempt to close churches. So, protesters, you’re protesting the closing of buildings. With that in mind, let’s ask some questions.

  1. Did you stream any entertainment during the pandemic? If so, were you in the streets demanding the government reopen movie theaters?
  2. Did you have any virtual medical appointments during the pandemic? If so, were you in the streets angrily screaming at the government to reopen doctors’ offices?
  3. Were your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews educated online during the pandemic? If so, did you insist the government reopen schools?
  4. Have you made online purchases during the pandemic? If so, are you carrying placards protesting the closure of shopping malls?

Going back to my family and decorating graves. Those graves do not contain the lives of our loved ones; they’re simply places we visit to be reminded of those lives. When I visit my hometown, I drive to the familiar places of my childhood to revisit the memories I have from being in those places with people who are important to me. The fact that I no longer have access to those places – someone else owns the farm, the house my other grandparents lived in when I was a kid no longer exists – in no way diminishes my relationship with those loved ones. My love for them goes far beyond any physical structure.

Our state leaders rightfully closed buildings where large groups gather to protect those most at risk. The least of these. You know, the ones Jesus was so committed to. They have no authority nor any means to close the church because the church is far more and far better than any building. But it seems American “Christians,” and especially Evangelicals (capital e), have some sort of persecution complex and actively seek ways to be offended. And when a wannabe Caesar transparently exploits this trait by playing to our worst instincts, the church shamefully misrepresents Christ and the unity he prayed for us, by shouting all the louder and actively flouting their disobedience the restrictions put into place to, again, protect the least of these. This is not a First Amendment issue; it is a Great Commandment issue.

I’ve intentionally mentioned the least of these. Jesus said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, my family, you do to me.” So when the current occupant of the White House mocks the poor, the disabled, racial minorities, women, he mocks Jesus. My friends, he does not have a pro-Christian agenda. He lives out the spirit of anti-Christ daily. He speaks to all of our worst instincts. The lifestyle he espouses doesn’t even qualify for being a decent human being outside of Jesus and his teachings. Yet many, far too many, who attempt to call themselves by the name of Jesus are out front leading the parade for the man who would be king. So, no, he’s not supporting your religious freedoms, he seeking to use you to exacerbate the divisions that exist in our country in an attempt to rile his base and attempt to maintain his power and somehow achieve reelection. Is this really what you want?

No government can ever close the church. Jesus promised that the gates of hell, of Sheol, could never stand against his church. No external force has that type of power. You know who can close the church? The church. When we choose to embrace the wicked power of empire and seek to label it, “Christian”, we close the church. And every minute spent in angry protest and every sign demanding our rights (you know, the rights Jesus never once mentions) brings us one step closer to being the ones who actually close the church.

Wake up.

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Step it up people!

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The stagecoach isn’t going to rob itself!

To be clear, I’m in favor of wearing masks to protect others who may be compromised or even simply afraid. But every time I wear a bandana to hit the park for a run or when I see someone else wearing one, I feel like I’m in an episode of Gunsmoke!

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The Eternal in the Midst of the Temporal

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“I do not want to complain about this passing world but to focus on the eternal that lights up in the midst of the temporal. I yearn to create space where it can be seen and celebrated.” Henri Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey

Creating space where the eternal can be seen and celebrated. What if we’re more than flesh and blood, more than here and now? What if we really are crafted by a mighty hand and intended to live in the realm of the eternal, even though for a season we sojourn in the temporal? What if there truly is a “thinness” between the now and the not yet? What if it is all connected, rather than existing as discrete and disparate realities?Hope comes in exactly those moments Nouwen describes, when the eternal lights up in the midst of the temporal; when the beautiful illuminates the mundane.

Nouwen wrote Sabbatical Journey as his journal during a sabbatical year from his work at L’Arche, a community that serves adults with developmental disabilities. About three weeks after completing this twelve month odyssey, Nouwen died quite suddenly. This journal, published as a book, was the final gift he left us. I bought the book as soon as it was published and read it immediately. It managed to leave me simultaneously heartsick and happy. While perusing some reader reviews today, I came across one that complained that reading the daily struggles of Nouwen tainted some of the hero perspective he had held for Father Henri; as if someone who wrote so profoundly (and might I add, so honestly) should never have questions or doubts, fears or anxieties. I think my fellow reader missed the point. It was precisely those daily struggles, mixed with the small victories, that drew my heart to this book. It was in those obscure moments, be they mountaintops or valley depths, that the eternal lit up in the midst of the temporal.

Among the highlights of this wonderful text is the placement of the Eucharist at the center of daily life. Nouwen prioritized not just the visits and the experiences, but the importance of living together in the sacrament. There is such amazing imagery, Henri creating physical, emotional, and spiritual space with his friends at each stop to share together in this coming together of heaven and earth. “The body of Christ, broken for you.” “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” It’s a tremendous loss, I think, for those who say they follow Christ but participate in Holy Communion only as an ordinance, taking the view that Jesus commanded it so we must do it. The Lord’s Table is a sacred space, where somehow the God of the universe desires and determines to meet us. If we are negligent, if we don’t show up, we miss so much. The life of God’s kingdom, in the here and now and in the age to come, is meant to be lived sacramentally.

While the different faces of the catholic Church recognize varying numbers of sacraments, two that are fairly universally acknowledged are baptism and Holy Communion. Most churches can agree on these and practice them in some form. Kind of a shame, practice. With Jesus, life is intended to be lived as a sacrament. When we’re paying attention, we can see the eternal along the way. When my two year old grandson runs down the sidewalk yelling, “Thanks for da do-nuts, Ba-po,” somehow the mundane becomes sacred. When I look from the back door toward this beautiful acre of land with its trees, flowers, and stream, there’s a faint recognition of a new earth, the perfection of this one. Eugene Peterson wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” The sacred is here, whispering our names, tugging at our sleeves. We can choose to ignore the holiness and insist on living on the surface, or we can create space for the eternal to light up in the midst of the temporal.

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Belovedness

NOTE: This is not my writing. This is a writing by Henri Nouwen, taken from the devotional book, You Are the Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living, and entitled “Belovedness”.

You are not what you do, although you do a lot. You are not what you have collected in terms of friendships and connections, although you might have many. You are not the popularity that you have received. You are not the success of your work. You are not what people say about you, whether they speak well or whether they speak poorly about you. All these things that keep you quite busy, quite occupied, and often quite preoccupied are not telling the truth about who you are. I am here to remind you in the name of God that you are the Beloved Daughters and Sons of God, and that God says to you, “I have called you from all eternity and you are engraved from all eternity in the palms of my hands. You are mine. You belong to me, and I love you with an everlasting love.

May these words fill you today. Peace of Christ to you.

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