Ash Wednesday

With Lent approaching, memories of a different year –

I sat with a
suddenly dead man
for three hours
beside his partner of
28 years who
doubled over
like the doctor
had just
punched him
instead of
offering apologies and
soft words.

‘I had someone to die’
I had to
tell the
homeless man
I couldn’t
drive to get
his phone
though I said
I would.

Texted the lost child
gone home
to her
hateful parents
because
she still
craves their love
so bad she’s been
snorting heroin
as a substitute.
Don’t worry,
she said, I didn’t
inject it.

One man had a stroke
and didn’t tell me
but he’s home I hear.
Another I went to visit
but couldn’t see
past the swarm of nurses
torturing him
to re-place the
feeding tube
his wandering
hands found.

Ashes and dust
water and spirit.

Another school shooting.

No poetry there.

Only blood that
drowns us in our sins.

Create in me a clean heart,
O God

So I can do it all again
tomorrow.

Amen

On Identity and Wholeness and the Gifts We Bring to the World

I haven’t been posting much on here lately, but I’m aiming to do a better job of at least including here some of the longer format things I write for other spaces (from sermons to Facebook posts).  On that note  . . .

During last week’s concert at Beloved, Gaelynn Lea took some time to talk about disability, artistry, and identity.

She spoke of not wanting the label of ‘disabled musician’ in that the qualifier somehow sets her apart (generally meant in a diminished way) from being a ‘musician.’ And yet at the same time, she explained how her disability is also a defining gift of her humanity and of how she engages with her music and with the world.

Her points echo with a post I shared yesterday about women pastors (worth a read if you missed it – great piece). Women pastors are simply pastors. Yet for nearly all whom I know, their gender is a part of what makes them so very good at walking in their calling.

I definitely see it my own experience. As an out lesbian, to the extent that I am skilled at being a human being and a pastor, it is because of who I am – and my embrace of who I am – not in spite of it. Ideally, there is a dual, entwined respect for me for my own particular (queer) expression of humanity and yet also for the universality of me as (among other things) simply a pastor.

It’s simultaneously an appeal to universality and to particularity. Neither alone captures the whole of the experience – and it’s a reductionist (even violent) move to try to make it do so.

The problem is with the norm – we talk about a man and a black man – or a pastor and a woman pastor – or an musician and a disabled musician – or a writer and a trans writer – or . . .

With such a move, we posit a norm around gender, race, (dis)ability status, sexual orientation, gender identity and so on. Reinforcing norms of whiteness, patriarchy, heteronormativity, biological essentialism, ableism, and so on is the daily practice of the dominant discourse, in which we all often participate.

At the same time, tropes of color-blindness, erasure of LGBTQ+ identity, glossing over disability status, and other refusals to acknowledge difference reinscribe that same norm. So – ‘ah you black people are really just like us white people’. Or ‘you queer people are really just like us cis-het people’.

Umm . . . no. It’s not true and it’s not a kindness to assert it – because it disregards the gifts born of diverse experience (and of course it does – because the dominant discourse does not see those gifts as gifts, but as threats).

Undoing this is hard. The tendency to frame a universal goes back as far in Western thought at least to Plato. And we are constantly soaked in our culture’s intentional racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, sexism, and so on – because that’s how the culture makes money and preserves power. Assimilationism is the same move in a different guise.

Let us do better.

Let us recognize the universal humanity of each person, while at the same time understanding the markers of identity that form their own particular being.

Let us interrogate the norms rather than accepting them as a given (let alone a natural or God-inspired given – because they are neither).

It will make us better people and grant us a better world. And it is work that we can do daily, both in decolonizing our own thinking and in creating a more genuinely inclusive practice in the world.

Amen

An Invocation for a Liquor Store

A friend had put extraordinary heart and energy into creating a lovingly curated liquor store in her home neighborhood in Birmingham – years after she had been forced out of a similar community endeavor by rising rents in Brooklyn.

Community ministry involves showing up, so when she invited me to bless the store at its public opening, I offered the following:*

Creator and Creation,

We come to this place in a spirit of blessing.

Bless it from roof to floor,
from wall to wall,
from its foundation to the sky.

May all harm be banished,
all disturbance cease.
May the spirit of joy and kindness and protection
and abundance and well-being
dwell within these walls.

May love be shared here.
May peace be shared here.
May all who work here be grounded in goodness.
May all who come here find friend, haven, and resilience.

We pray for wisdom and clarity for
all who are in business – and especially for LeNell –
that their talents may be used for prosperity
not only for themselves,
but for the world.

May blessings abound in this place.

In the name of all that is sacred,

Amen

*this blessing takes an initial cue from a house blessing in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and riffs from there.

The Time It Takes to Decide

I left a homeless man across town

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway because he knows the guy that runs it

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway because he knows the guy that runs it and he asked me to

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway because he knows the guy that runs it and he asked me to and I had time

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway because he knows the guy that runs it and he asked me to and I had time and I didn’t have any other ideas for him

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway because he knows the guy that runs it and he asked me to and I had time and I didn’t have any other ideas for him and I gave him bus fare in case he needed to get back

I left a homeless man across town at a rescue mission that might not have a bed but he wanted to try anyway because he knows the guy that runs it and he asked me to and I had time and I didn’t have any other ideas for him and I gave him bus fare in case he needed to get back and a small red umbrella because it
started
to
rain.

This Moment/Life in Justice Work

the manipulation of sentiment by power for profit

that’s the ideology of this country – and that is nothing new

dehumanization in service of exploitation is nothing new. Western (ahem) civilization – and the U.S. in particular – was built on blood and bones woven with self-centered ambition and the quest for material wealth

this heinous ideology manifests every single day in many ugly, destructive ways — and it’s really smart, in part because it’s had so much practice and so much success

if we want to accomplish anything more than feeding on the scalding fuel of outrage (making ourselves feel simultaneously awful and righteous), then we have to do better

concentrated power plans decades, even generations ahead, while we do well to figure out the next step

concentrated power is ruthlessly proactive, while we are consistently reactive

its moves fit consistently with its innovative strategies, while we rise up in furor, get (understandably) exhausted, and settle back into letting guilt and anxiety dance in our dreams

It’s made harder by a commitment to ethics and grassroots power, in that our ends do not justify just any means – but to compromise this means that we become like them. That’s ethically problematic – and beyond that, it just doesn’t work in terms of actual social change.

This is not a critique of anyone. It’s a critique of the contemporary movement for justice and freedom for all people and the planet, by someone who has been in that movement for 35 years.

we have to do better.

Let it begin with a clear understanding that what we face daily is the manipulation of sentiment by power for profit

Let it be understood that we must constantly examine the dynamics of power in every relationship (personal and political, our own and at every level).

Let it continue in a daily dismantling of the ideology of patriarchal, white supremacist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist, earth-destroying, xenophobic practice at every level. We must see and make the connections.

Let us ask – always – “who benefits from this?” (at any level – and whether the actions are theirs or ours) – and continually refine our analysis and our actions

Let us understand that the struggle for justice and liberation is a life-long way of living – and that we must sustain ourselves in joy and community and resilience and courage even as our hearts are continually broken open.

Amen

The Truth

Midweek I sat
fingering purple plastic
prayer beads strung
by the faithful
for those passing
through a hospital
chapel, who slip
them in a
coat pocket so
as to find
them by touch –

sitting in a
county courtroom populated
by shackled black
men in faded
prison stripes –
irony feasting on
the wall portrait
framing an old
white man in
his impeccable regimental
striped tie and
gleaming cufflinks –

A repeat felon,
facing new charges,
urged to plea
lest he face
mandatory life without
parole –

“No, your honor,
I ain’t going
to plead to
nothing
I
didn’t
do.”

But the moment
that makes us
all bow our
heads –

the young blonde
prosecutor clears her
throat,
hesitates,
before explaining that
no, they can’t
reschedule for Monday
for a man
trying to keep
his job because
it’s the
Jefferson Davis
holiday.

One-Time Shot Logic

death
smells like poisonous gas
feels like fire from
bombs dropped
between busy hours
of laundry,
bathing children,
signatures on significant
documents,
dollars trading
hands for bread,
medicine,
safety,
a promise.

death
tastes like Flint’s water
scalding the skin
mirage of clean
burned to bone
thirst quenched by
dangerous illusions
sounds like self-checkout registers
turning jobs
into vapor

death
looks like hell,
run by callous men
But really –
You know death
when you see it.

What You Can Do

I’m hearing a lot of overwhelmed from people right now – and understandably so. Here’s what I’ve got to offer – take it to the extent it is useful:

Keep speaking truth to power with love.

Keep doing works of mercy.

Keep learning so that you gain ever more clarity and ever more skill in those tasks.

Rest as you need. You are allowed to rest. All living things require it.

Pay attention – and discern when it’s useful to speak and when it isn’t. Both issues and people reveal themselves – and are changed in and by – the stresses of the world.

Remember that this work (all of this work, wherever you are) is a long haul. There are acute moments, but it is most certainly a (life-) long commitment to a better world. It was here before you. It will (sadly) be here after you. Each of us is but a small part of that work.

You are called to do what you can. You are not called to do more or less than that. Work on discerning what is within your control and what is beyond it.

Be kind when you can – for the sake of your own heart as well as those around you.

There are contextual variations on these principles. And I’ve got more thoughts for my fellow Jesus followers (and that’s what I preach on each week). But I’ve found that these notions hold true in most contexts and for most people.

Peace and blessings for the day, friends.

The Clash of Interdependence with the Ideology of Power

I am staring at the news of the world today and especially at the tragic, infuriating deaths of Nabra Hassanen in Sterling, VA and Charleena Lyles in Seattle and at the effects of the devastating creep of climate change.

In this world where our hearts are continually broken by such wrenching tragedy, I am pondering today some key questions within the following context –

(and these are not actually new questions – I have been asking them and seeking answers to them for 30 years now, but this musing represents the refinement of my framing of them in today’s moment)

I affirm that the well-being of all living things – including me and those dearest to me and the body of the earth – is interconnected.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr explained that “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.”

Buddhists (wisely) frame it in terms of the concept of interdependence (pratitya-samutpada).

I get to it in Christianity by (a) seeing the face of Jesus in all around me, particularly in those whom our culture marginalizes, (b) acknowledging that we are all created in God’s image, and (c) affirming that the Holy Spirit dwells within us all. These are central principles in my theology.

I understand interdependence as a simple fact of existence. We are interdependent as living beings and on that basis we ought to care for another.

That is both an ethical stance and a pragmatic one.

We are confronted with a culture – and plenty of people within it – who view living as a game of accumulation of power and material comfort in which the goal is to protect their own well-being (which they believe deserves to be protected even at the expense of the well-being of others).

I admit that I and other well-meaning folk of relative privilege (whatever that relative cultural power is in any immediate moment) are not immune to the lure of this thinking. We are soaked in it and sold it daily, so it takes constant work to scrub it off.

This view renders the majority of the population as disposable beyond their economic value as consumers and as threats to the extent that they are construed to infringe upon the perceived right to accumulate power and material comfort.

These two perspectives cannot exist side-by-side merely as different views of the world.

The second perspective attempts to obliterate and obscure the first – by violence and by constant seduction.

The first perspective floods the second with a demand for justice for all, mercy toward all, equity, care, and compassion. Those who seek to protect the second rightly assess that accepting the fact of our interdependence erodes their fictive claim to deserved superiority.

This is a life and death struggle. Make no mistake about that. It is also a struggle for our souls and the soul of our culture.

Those who would accumulate power in service to their own privilege are prevailing. They have been and continue to effectively shape the world according to their image of it and to their benefit. They adapt quickly and strategically to new challenges.

They are not only not afraid of their own power, they glory in it.

My question is this – how do we who believe in the reality of our interdependence effectively change the game without becoming like those who serve their own power and privilege?

As it stands now, pitting their strategies and worldview against ours, we are losing this life and death struggle.

And yet if we adopt their methods and methodologies (even with different ends in mind) and their tight grasp of power, then we become like them. Or do we?

Surely these are not the only two options – (1) continuing to lose in the struggle for the fully recognized dignity and intrinsic worth of all human lives and all of Creation or (2) becoming like those who so willfully destroy the earth and its people ( or at least callously stand by and allow it to happen).

How do we get beyond this trap of choices?

A Prayer for the Morning of the National Prayer Breakfast

I hear the National Prayer Breakfast is taking place this morning in Washington. 
 
Here in Alabama, as I sit with my coffee, I am praying this prayer –

Gracious and Loving God,
 
I lift up to you this morning the weary and determined spirits of those everywhere who love justice and mercy, who seek to live with compassion and joy and commitment, and who daily do that work as best they can.
 
I count myself among this number and ask for wisdom and guidance and skill in my own work, that I might be an instrument of your love and light in this world.
 
I lift up the disenfranchised and dispossessed, those from whom land and life and the means of life have been taken, those who have been denied the basic dignity and respect due to all people.
 
I lift up the anxieties and fears that weigh upon the hearts of so many. I pray for comfort and courage to face whatever lies ahead.
 
I lift up hard hearts and closed minds and bitter spirits and selfish interests that they might be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
 
I lift up the powers of this world – greed and power-seeking and ego-gratification and cruelty – that we might recognize them for what they are, wherever they are and from whomever they come. I pray for strength and insight for us all in confronting such sin wherever it comes from.
 
I lift up the Earth which gives rise to all that is good, which we must protect and nurture and cherish and love with our whole broken hearts. I pray for ecosystems and plants and rocks and animals and hills and mountains and rivers and seas and all the planet.
 
For all in need, I pray for healing, solace, wisdom, courage, justice, compassion, insight, and hope.
 
I pray for us all.
 
It is the example of Jesus that has taught me the love that I bring to this prayer and it is in that spirit that I pray.
 
Amen.