Rep. Ilhan Omar and the Same Old Questions

I’ve been pondering what to say about the recent/ongoing controversies around the president and Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The problem is that there’s really nothing new to say. These are the same old questions of power and ethics.

However, the lessons remain important – and never more so than during Holy Week, so:

The critically important voices of women of color are massively underrepresented in public discourse in our culture. May we listen and learn from them, recognizing and respecting that those voices are particular rather than monolithic.

White imperial capitalist patriarchy perpetually reacts with violence to challenges to its ill-gotten hegemonic power. The intensity of reaction generally mirrors the intensity of the perceived threat. This power is unambiguously harmful to people and the planet.

Cultural pluralism is one of the greatest gifts of life in the contemporary United States. In that context, religious differences ought to be a site of blessing and respect. May we who are not Muslim hold Muslims in our hearts as our friends and neighbors.

Our lives are suffused with holiness — of time, place, and being. We must actively, daily choose to grasp that reality, to live that way rather than drowning in the transactionalism of contemporary society, that system of dominance that reduces all worth to that of economic production and consumption.

Let those of us who claim an ethical principle of living, rooted in religious faith or not, do our best to embody compassion, justice, respect, and love in ways that reject exploitation, dehumanization, and commodification of all living beings and the whole of Creation.

That is the work of living in this age.

We do this work and walk this path together.

Amen

On the UMC and the Real Way Forward

Well, let’s give up on the illusion that I’ve been able to maintain any significant degree of professional (or personal) distance from the whole UMC situation.

The things I have said that have been meaningful to people have not come from that place anyway, so I’m just going to talk about pain and promise as I understand it. I have written elsewhere of the depth of my lifelong personal connection to the UMC, so I won’t rehash it here. 

Like so many issues, this battle is situated in a particular setting, but reflects a much larger cultural struggle between those who seek to widen the circle of care and belonging and those who seek to preserve their own power for their own benefit.

So . . . as it turned out, yesterday as the global body of the UMC gathered for its final day of General Conference, I had agreed to be a part of a 5-hour community conversation hosted – of all places – at East Lake UMC, a congregation to which I belonged at the time God called me to seminary.

The folks at East Lake and their brilliant pastor have never been anything less than 110% supportive of me and my calling – and the group gathered yesterday were community-engaged folks from all over the city, BUT STILL. . .

I drove over there mumbling about how it was the absolute LAST F—ING PLACE I wanted to be on that day.  And that was the God’s honest truth.

I walked in doing my feeble best at a game face and after registration turned and ran into my friend and brother, Ali. He innocently said “Hey! How are you?”

I promptly started crying and mumbling uttering incoherent things. Ali, baffled but enduringly kind, just hugged me, a perfect gift of peace in a wrenching moment.

It was a shaky few hours, but I was lifted up – as I always am – by the kinship of good people, some of whom knew it was a hard morning and others who didn’t have a clue.

meandli.jpg Me, hanging in there, and Ali

I took a couple of breathing moments in East Lake’s sanctuary, which I consider the most beautiful traditional sacred space in the city (go ahead, fight me).

The smaller stained glass windows that feature the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Talents are my favorites. They sit in what used to be my line of sight when I sang in the choir there and I would often go at other times and just perch in front of them.

stainedglass

The lessons of those parables remain as important as they always have been – perhaps all the more so. And the shattered shards of East Lake’s beautiful current altar setting felt especially fitting.

meandaltar

After East Lake, I moved on elsewhere to  a difficult but restorative conversation with someone with whom I’d had a conflict – and then on to drinks with good, hurting UMC people, followed by conversation with good, kick-ass queer clergy friends.

It was the people who made the difference. Therein lies both the pain and the promise.

For many of us, church is family.

Yes, you can worship God anywhere because God is everywhere.

Yet worship in isolation nearly always tends toward our cultural narrative of self-preoccupation, this noxious attachment to ego gratification and capitalist manipulation of desire.  

Following Jesus – as with other religious traditions – is (blessedly) a communal endeavor.

No wonder the rejection hurts so much for so many people, including me.

It cuts to the deepest parts of the safety we find (or ought to be able to find) in family and community.

It is a devastating refusal of the God-given gifts we offer into family and community.

We are formed in faith and then violently ejected from its circle of care.

It is a sinful, human-driven, patriarchal-power-rooted, grievous misinterpretation of holy Scripture.

(okay, now please DO NOT oversimplify any of what follows. Hear it through before you decide what you think I’m trying to say)

I was given this UCC emblem when I was installed as pastor at Beloved Community Church. I’m not a big accessories person, so it mostly stays in a drawer. I took it out yesterday and slipped it in my shirt pocket before I went to East Lake.

uccpendant

Its weight there served as a tangible reminder of where I have landed – and how I have found a place to use my gifts and honor my calling.

I was trying to say something last night in a text reply about my adopted church and accidentally wrote that the UCC had adopted me.

And once I wrote it I knew that phrase got to the heart of the matter.

The UCC adopted me and loved me. (ain’t nothing perfect, but hopefully you can grasp the grace extended there – that’s the point).  I have learned that one does not have to be a United Methodist to be a Wesleyan. 

To those outside of such a relationship of love and care –

LGBTQIAP CLERGY AND LAY PEOPLE OF THE UMC –  I completely get why you would choose to stay – especially if you feel a particular calling to do so.

I also fully understand why you would leave (that’s what I did  – and it was utterly necessary and second only to coming out as a liberating action in my life). If you need help figuring out where to go, I’d be glad to help. I’m partial to Beloved of course, but not at the expense of wanting people to find places that truly resonate with their spirit – that is my primary commitment.

If you stay, please send out those who leave with your blessing as they seek to follow God’s call on their lives.

If you stay, please understand that you are in an abusive relationship. No matter how good your congregation is (and there are some fantastic UMC congregations locally and globally), as long as it remains in the UMC connection, it is not autonomous.

The relationship of the UMC to LGBTQIAP people is abusive.

So stay if you need to, but protect yourself.

Protect yourself.

Please.

Because you are loved fully by God and God wants your wholeness and your well-being so that you may walk in your calling, so that you may be God’s hands and feet in the world.

If you ever need safe space to talk, pray, grieve, or just be, let me know.

STRAIGHT, CISGENDER UMC CLERGY – I begrudge no one the necessity of making a living.

I am heartened by the solidarity and care I have seen expressed over the last couple of days not just by the usual bold souls, but by people whose positions make it harder to make those affirmations publicly. I dearly hope that you have glimpsed God as you have pushed the boundaries of your own courage.

Please remember that there is no neutral here. If you do not side with the marginalized, then you are siding with the oppressor. And when you compromise for the sake of unity, you are compromising the lives of LGBTQ+ people within your congregations (and there are more than you know) and far beyond those walls.

Please remember that in the days ahead and let that knowledge be reflected in your actions.

And if anybody is looking for an exit strategy for themselves or their churches, I’d be glad to connect you with good people not only in my denomination, but in other affirming denominations and with good non-denominational folks who can talk about their experiences.

STRAIGHT, CISGENDER UMC LAY PEOPLE – Many of you are dedicated allies in the struggle for justice – and many of you are hurt and angered by what has happened.

You too have the choice of staying or leaving. If you are leaving and you need a place to land, I’ll be happy to talk to you about progressive churches in the area, including but not limited to my own.

If you stay, please take care of your hurting queer church folk – and please understand that your hurt and anger are a fraction of what they are feeling. Be there for them, but don’t make it about you.

The heavy lifting of change in the days ahead remains with you. If you don’t change the UMC, it will not change.

That must be an active process. You all will have to organize and act to match and surpass the organizing and action strategies of the WCA-types.

Otherwise it will get worse and not better. It may get worse anyway. We do not control the outcome, but we do control our own efforts.

It’s up to you.

PEOPLE IN CHURCHES MORE CONSERVATIVE THAN THE UMC – please just go sit down. If you (or not you personally, but your church) are satisfied by the triumph of homophobia and transphobia in the UMC, I don’t care to hear about it. I think you’re wrong and causing great harm to vulnerable people (which is a sin), but you probably already know that and there’s no point in our discussing it.

PEOPLE IN CHURCHES MORE PROGRESSIVE THAN THE UMC – yes, we are more progressive. Some of us are handling our solidarity and shared pain on behalf of our UMC friends and neighbors with grace and skill. Others of us are being rather heavy-handed in our too-blatant efforts at recruitment or expressions of superiority. The first is good. The second, not so much. If you’re struggling with the difference in your efforts to reach out, give me a holler and maybe together we can figure out a way to word it that sounds loving not sheep-stealing or smug.

I have been writing throughout this experience from my own pain of exclusion from the church of my deep roots, so I have an odd insider/outsider dynamic that informs what I say – and that gives me some legitimacy to speak into the conversation (I argue – not all agree). When in doubt, try love and leave it at that.

Concluding lessons as I see them –

The pain is real.

The situation is heartbreaking.

The call to solidarity can take many forms. We are one body in Christ – and there are many ways we can be one body and in solidarity with one another. Those relationships can be – and I’d argue should be – more creative than those we’ve devised in the past.

Justice for the oppressed matters more than unity.

Oppressors are very skillful with the gathering, hoarding, exercise, and manipulation of power. Those who would dismantle oppression need to be equally sophisticated – though more ethical – in their relationship with power.

People make all the difference.

None of us is free until all of us are free.

The work to enact God’s transformative justice and God’s abiding mercy in the world goes on.

Amen

 

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

Finding the Sacred in the Everyday: Part II – Justice and the Other

We’ll begin today with a quote from Father Daniel Berrigan, who passed from this world into the next yesterday after a long life of faithful work for justice-

“Obviously there will be no genuine peace while such an inherently violent scheme of things continues. America will in time extricate herself from the bloody swamps, the ruined villages, the mutilated dead of Vietnam. But nothing will be settled there, nothing mitigated at home. Nothing changed, that is, until a change of heart leads us to a change of social structures in every area of our lives.”

Justice for the Other is a sacred task.

It’s a humbling thing to be talking about justice here today because I know this is a congregation for whom a desire for justice is woven into the fabric of your faith – we can see how it says so right there in your bulletin.

We talked last week about connecting with the sacred in ourselves – and I suspect for many here that’s a more challenging concept than the notion that we would find the sacred among others and especially among the Other – those whom our society marginalizes for one reason or another.

Today we are talking about how people in the spring of 2016 living in Birmingham Alabama, participating in the life of this congregation – how can you encounter the sacred in the lives of others and live out a path of justice?

First of all, I know that many of you already are doing so. Let us take a moment to celebrate the consistent witness of this congregation and you among it on so many vital issues. Let us be grateful that you create and hold a progressive, inclusive faith space in an environment where those can be difficult to find.

Do you do this perfectly? I suspect not. I’ve never known any congregation who did. But from what I know you strive to make the connections between how we ought to live and how we do live – and how we treat one another, both individually and systemically.

Thank you for that. That is a calling and it is a gift to you and through you to the broader community.

That ought to be said.

And because I know you take this commitment seriously, today I’m going to offer to you a few further reflections rooted in my own years of social justice engagement and in my sense of your community – each of you on your individual journeys and along your path together.

I am going to make 4 points (and don’t worry, I’ll make them briefly) –

1)  let us realize that we are not all called to do the same sort of work. This was the message I offered the young people – and let me reassert it now. Any work for justice is built on a variety of tasks. Some people are good at critique. Others create. Some people are the logistics folks. Vision and practicality. It takes all of us. Often we devalue our own roles. Or we criticize others because they are not just like us.

Don’t get me wrong – accountability is important and we need to examine critical words to figure out if we can learn something from them. Or to offer some critical words – from a place of love, not ego. But we’re in this together – and we do the work best when we do what we are called to do and support others in what they are called to do.

That acknowledges the sacred in ourselves and in the others whom we struggle alongside.

So that’s first. In the struggle for justice, let us keep building one another up.

2)  we know there is a constant struggle for justice and against oppression across difference.

We can name forms of oppression –

Systemic racism
Sexism and patriarchy
Homophobia and heterosexism
Ableism
Ageism
Colonialism
Militarism
Materialism

Systemic discrimination because of economic status or class, national origin, religion (or lack thereof). There are others.

And today we especially honor International Workers Day. We remember the long history of labor demands and the ongoing needs for wage justice across the globe. The obstacles to minimum wage legislation locally are just one example in the ongoing demand for dignity and a fair wage for all working people, for all who want and need to work.

Today is also International Family Equality Day, a world-wide celebration of the LGBTQ parenting and family community and a time of recognition that many parents and their children continue to face discrimination and the threat of violence. In a week that has seen Oxford threaten to jail transgender people based on bathroom use and Chief Justice Roy Moore publically reiterating his claim that same-sex marriage violates state law, we must celebrate loving and caring family in all of its formations.

Each of the causes, each of these demands for justice and experience of injustice bring their own specific conditions.

We can acknowledge that no paths are the same while we at once recognize that the forces of oppression have something in common.

Our culture continues to set forth a particular norm. And with that norm goes power in society. And across that norm – on the other side, you find less power, less value.

Across that norm, we move from subject to object. And if we look around the room, there are ways in which we all cross that norm – you might be a black straight woman or a low-income white man. You might be a Latino man with dementia. Or a trans Muslim youth.

We flip across the continuum of power in all of our identities – and we owe it to the quest for justice to recognize the ways in which we are granted power, even as in other ways we are denied it.

And further to understand that the intersections of those layers of identity render people especially privileged. Or especially vulnerable.

That is the reality of our world. The question to us is what we do with it.

IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. This is not some natural order. We have constructed a society in which difference is viewed with suspicion and denied full humanity – or the full respect of creation if we look beyond human life into the health of our ecosystems and the future of the planet.

This is human-made.

Injustice is persistent and pervasive but we always have choices. We always have the capacity to assert that the system as we know it is wrong.

We are not all the same. But our differences can be viewed as a source of richness, as the vibrant texture of our full humanity, as the opportunity to come to come into relationships of mutuality.

We have that choice. To embrace and assert the value of a pluralistic world, one that celebrates rather than erases differences and yet strives for full justice and full value and the recognition of the full humanity of all people and indeed the value and meaning of all creation.

This requires us continually to educate ourselves. No matter how much we know, there is more to learn. Change is a constant. And it is not the responsibility of people at the margins or those whom we have made vulnerable in our society to educate us. We must not assume that our good intentions entitle us to relationship. When we’re in the position of privilege – we have to do our own work.

We can learn to respect people as the subjects of their own lives rather than as the objects of our derision or mockery OR our charity or aspirations for them.

When we bring our open hearts and our open minds – and when we leave our defensiveness and our egos and our need to be the good white person/straight person/ally/and so on back at home – we can find the room to do meaningful work.

We may not always be setting the agenda. Maybe we just need to show up and listen and then take what we’ve learned back to our own communities and circles.

And there, even in the most hard-hearted places of ingrained racism or sexism or homophobia, maybe we find that through our commitment, our compassion, and our ever-growing wisdom maybe we find the opportunities to chip away at oppression at its source.

That is difficult and delicate work – and if we wield our truths like an angry hammer – well, sometimes we have to do that – but most of the time, if we look, we can find ways to speak truth to power has a chance to be heard. And a lot of times, it may not even be about the person you’re speaking directly to. Even if you are just disrupting the illusion of consensus, you may be speaking a truth that someone needs to hear – and doing what’s right because it’s right.

3) Okay, so having talked about justice as own specific identities and at the intersections, let’s widen the circle a little. The way that we do community can be a radical act of justice. In a world of commodification and consumerism, creating spaces of intentional genuine community – community that has porous borders, so that it’s open to all – community where people can join in relationship – that is a justice act.

And it is from that community and from those relationships that we come to understand the visceral realities of the structures of power and privilege. These connections can be counter-cultural. They can interrupt norms.

And I know y’all know that.  This congregation is one of those places.

But I also know that – as I said earlier – no gathering of human people is perfect. And I know that times of transition are hard. And the world that we live in today encourages us to harden our edges. So as a friend to this community, I want to take this opportunity to reiterate the importance of building real, non-exclusive, mutually-accountable, open-hearted relationships among yourselves.

This takes commitment and patience. It is active and evolving. We bring the world with us – and all of our own stuff – when we walk through these doors. But in your willingness to do this work, to dedicate this effort, you create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

4) Finally, I know we could spend all day talking about layers and levels of injustice and the struggle to achieve justice, but I will close with one other matter that takes us out another level into the community.

One element of my own current work is a focus on how we regard the question of economic development in our city and in our state. There are a lot of wonderful things happening in Birmingham right now. But in some cases they are happening – as these things have ALWAYS happened here – on the backs of the poorest among us. I’m talking about what, depending on how you look at it, is described as neighborhood revitalization or as gentrification.

I’m all about cool places to eat and fixing up dilapidated housing and craft beer – seriously, we can say that in the UU church, right? Good beer is a great thing.

But once again it comes at a price – and it does not take much digging at all to realize that this is absolutely a consistent pattern over the whole of the history of this metropolitan area — we put the interests of business and of the relatively affluent above the needs of the poor.

In Birmingham, this is always a racialized narrative as well, so that we have the needs of poor black and brown people subsumed to the profit and pleasure of the affluent, who are predominantly, though not exclusively, white. Poor people of color are displaced in the name of so-called economic and neighborhood development. We see it decade after decade in the history our city and it is happening now.

Unfortunately, the sides on this argument have come to a point where everyone more or less knows what the other is going to say.

Add to that that these are complicated, nuanced issues, where the economic engines involved have become ever-more sophisticated in their presentation and the methods.

Add in the persistent pernicious ideology of globalization which is constantly soaked into our outlook. Gentrification is globalization made manifest at a local level.

If we take it out another level, we see the ways in which the economic development rhetoric in our state tends to happen at the expense of the natural environment.

Disposable people, disposable ecosystems.

Collateral damage laid on the altar of profit and productivity.

I raise these issue here today not because we can fully address it – I myself often have more questions than solutions, but because I would like to invite you as a religious community to participate in a broader religious dialogue on gentrification. This is not a centralized conversation, but instead a grassroots effort to bring our lens of faith to examine such questions as

Who benefits from economic revitalization and neighborhood (re)development and at whose expense does it take place? and

How should we as religious communities and individuals respond to the fact that current models of economic and neighborhood development do little to disrupt systems that marginalize significant groups of people – because they are rooted in neoliberal economic approaches and top-down strategies that reinforce outsider hierarchies rather than grassroots participation.

Make no mistake that they are more sophisticated than past blunt tools of legalized racial segregation and so-called urban renewal. But they are this century’s face of our continued neglect of the most vulnerable among us in the service of a cultural narrative of economic self-sufficiency and continued accumulation of wealth and power for a sliver of the populace.

In a world that does not now and will not ever IN the current economic system have enough living wage jobs for people to gainfully support themselves, I would argue that it is of great relevance on International Workers Day to question the status quo – and the violence it does to people on the economic margins.

If this question of a religious dialogue on gentrification and how you might bring a UU faith lens to examine these issues has any interest to you – either as individuals or as a community, please let me know. This is an organically evolving dialogue and I would love to discuss at some point in the days, weeks, or months ahead how we might productively generate such a conversation here and what sort of action might come out of it.

As we conclude these meditations on finding the sacred among us in everyday life, on living out a path of justice, I offer more words from Daniel Berrigan:

“For my part, I believe that the vain, glorious and the violent will not inherit the earth.  In pursuance of that faith my friends and I take the hands of the dying in our hands. And some of us travel to the Pentagon, and others live in the Bowery and serve there, and others speak unpopularly and plainly. It is all one.”

Finding the Sacred in the Everyday: Part I – the Self

This is the first of two-part sermon series given to a Unitarian Universalist congregation earlier this spring. The second week’s sermon, which I will post tomorrow, focuses on finding the sacred in our justice-oriented connections with the world around us. 

We’re talking today about the everyday sacred. First let me say that I’m not going to define sacred here. I’m not going to try to tell a group as spiritually diverse as you what ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ means to each of you, though I’m certainly glad to talk to folks about that later if you want. But I’m going to trust that most of you have a sense of what sacred means for you – and it’s probably why you’re here – in this particular place rather than out on the lake or over at the Baptist church on this fine Sunday morning.

Now our reading, which comes from Father Greg Boyle, who happens to be a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles. This is not a Jesus sermon – I do those elsewhere – but some of you may have heard of his long-term community-building and job creation efforts in gang-dominated areas of Los Angeles. They’ve built a group of enterprises called Homeboy Industries.  So hear these words –

“If the intent is to save people, or even to help people, then . . . you’re going to be depleted. But if the task is allowing yourself to be reached by people, can you receive people? Can you be anchored in the here and now and practice the sacrament of the present moment? if you can do that, then it’s all delight and it’s all amazement and it’s all awe. . . Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it. And, just because everything is about something else, if you savor the world, somehow – go figure – it’s getting saved.”

Let’s talk for a minute about getting depleted. Anybody here ever feel depleted? Like you’ve given all you’ve got to give? Frustrated? Angry? Weary? Anybody ever despair of the state of the world?

Yeah. We’ve been there. Maybe you’re there now.

We are surrounded by avoidable death. Every time I turned around this week I read about people getting shot. How many endless wars are happening on our planet?  Avoidable death and Donald Trump and mass incarceration and anti-LGBTQ legislation. We lost Prince this week – he sang much of the best of the soundtrack of my high school years – and he’s not the only cultural icon who has died recently.

We celebrate Earth Day while we can’t seem to do a thing to interrupt climate change and wanton ecosystem destruction. We blame the poor, the immigrant, and the mentally ill for our problems. We starve Medicaid but legislate bathroom use.

And in our own lives we contend with stacks of bills, dozens of errands, and overflowing e-mail inboxes. We try to help but there’s always another cause, always another person, always another wrenching image, always another hand, always another word we’ve got to speak against. It never ends – and it’s entirely possible it never will.

Some days we’re up to here. That, my friends, can seem mighty bleak.

But here’s the grace moment – it’s right here in Boyle’s words – Can you be anchored in the here and now? Can you practice the sacrament of the present moment?

(and he not the first one to use that phrase but we’re going to stick with his context this moment)

Last August I had a detached retina in my right eye. Pretty scary stuff, but the surgery to repair it went well. But I found for a time that I could not read comfortably. I ordered a basic Kindle Fire from Amazon because I learned they had a text-to-speech feature that would enable them to read books to me. It’s pretty mechanical, not like a real audiobook though the technology for these things has improved.

As my eye slowly healed, I was able to keep up with much of my reading by having the device read to me. So it’s reading a book to me that quotes from the Bible and you know how scripture is set up chapter and verse, right?  – so chapter 6, verse 30. Six colon thirty. Well, my kindle read that like it that – and I heard it like clock time. I heard 6:30. Like clock time.

And I went ‘Hunh.’

Ever have something just click for you? You’re there one minute and something just shifts? Well, that happened to me when I heard that.

And instead of thinking about sacred texts (the actual reference), I got started thinking about sacred time. And the more I thought about it, the more it seems like we are capable of seeing all time as sacred time. Not just the moments when we are gathered here in church – or those precious moments of birth and death and marriage and other milestones. We can choose to see time as sacred.

So let’s hold that for a moment – imagine that – all time is sacred.

For us to filter time like that, for us make that one lens through which we encounter the world, we have to make it a part of us. We have to take that sense of sacred-ness and know that it’s part of who we are. It’s something internal to us – and if it’s internal to us, it’s internal to all – so we hold the sacred within us, as do we all.

But here’s the thing – it’s already there. The sacred is already there in you and already all around you. However, it is mighty easy for it to get covered over by all the mess of our material culture and all the busy-ness of our routines.

We have to make the deliberate choice to see it that way. We have to CHOOSE to see the moments of our daily lives as sacred – both the monumental and the mundane, the joyous and the sorrowful moments. All of it.

Can you do it? Some of you may already do so. Most people don’t. Our lives obscure it most of the time. It becomes a muddy smudge except in special moments. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s there, if only we decide to see it.

All time is sacred time.

Can you see it that way?

Nothing has changed. And yet everything has changed.

Then here’s our next step. We are moving through this sacred time. We are always on the go, right? There’s stuff and stimulation of all sorts. What happens? For this we turn to some of the great wisdom passed down from Buddhist teachers. We see the sacred in all things around us, we do what we can do, and then we let it go.

Because nothing, my friends, is permanent. We can try to hold onto joys, but we can’t. We can try to push away pain, but we can’t. Sometimes we hold onto our pain – and that works for a time though it’s miserable. But we find if we fill ourselves with any one thing, then we are unable to greet what comes next.

When we see time as sacred, we experience the moment – the fullness of the moment – we do what we can in that moment, as skillfully as possible – and then we let it go so that we are prepared to face the next sacred moment.

We are called to do all that we can, but not more than that. We can only do what we can do. By acknowledging the sacred within us, we can work through that sacredness in all that we do. And that is bound to help us do what we do better.

I am going to give you a small example. And I don’t actually know if this guy framed his time as sacred or not. But he sure acted like he did. Some of y’all may remember there used to be a Quiznos in downtown Homewood. I used to go in there from time to time back.

One day I was in a crummy mood because I was having a crummy day.

The man behind the counter – this man who took my order, made me a sandwich, and took my money? He was an instrument of perfect grace. He simply did everything he was supposed to do in the kindest manner possible.

It stopped me and my bad day in my tracks. And I realized that I did not have to go through my time like that. Friends, that was probably 10 years ago. And I can still remember that moment.

Do you change the world by making a sandwich? That man – and I don’t know a thing about him. I never even got his name – he changed my world. I learned a great deal about the everyday sacred from a man who made me a sandwich. This ordinary thing was turned into an extraordinary gift.

We can see and use our time as sacred moments. Time that enables us to touch the sacred in ourselves and to honor it in others.

Back to our quote – But if the task is allowing yourself to be reached by people, can you receive people? Can you be anchored in the here and now and practice the sacrament of the present moment? if you can do that, then it’s all delight and it’s all amazement and it’s all awe. . . Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it

So here is the savoring part: we see the sacredness of all things. The joys and the sorrows – both are real and both are true. We see it and we savor it. We hold it for the moment. We discern in that moment what we can do and what we cannot do. And we let. it. go, doing what we can and not doing what we can’t.

Friends in that moment, we have touched what is real. And we have blessed from our deepest capacity to do so.

Savor that. It is a moment. And then we move on. But the next moment is sacred too.

Let’s be real. Everybody is going to get tired. There is no way around it. There are times when our outrage overwhelms us – and rightly so. But we must remember that both the joy and the sorrow are true.  We hold them in tension.

What are some things that help to make this a sustainable practice? Just like I can’t define sacred for you, I can’t tell you what is going to make the most sense for you. I know some things that work for some people, some possible ingredients in the mix:

creative expression, generosity, kindness, meditation, music, rest, humor, sharing food, love, forgiveness of both the self and others, silence, worship, solitude, relationship, compassion, giving and also receiving, wisdom.

That’s hardly an exhaustive list.  You do not have to do any of those things. You do not have to do or believe anything I’ve said. You can go right on seeing the world exactly as you have done and I will wish you nothing but blessings and a lovely journey.

But I offer this to you – humbly – as a notion – as a person who works at the intersections of different faiths and different issues and different people. Consider how we might come to see time as sacred, how in the process we might find it possible to savor the world, and in so doing, perhaps we will find new ways to save it.

I’ll close with a bit of a poem by the Jewish poet, Marge Piercy. It’s a nod to the indisputably sacred moment, the celebration of Passover, which we’re in the midst of now – and very much in keeping with our day –

But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.

Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.

 

 

 

 

The Work of Creation: Judges 5: 3-7

We have a lot to do tonight.

That fits, right?

Tonight we are staring at the role of women in our lives and we come to a point of saying, ‘There is a whole lot to do. ‘

And we’re going to get it done.

That sound like any woman you know?

Plenty to do.

And it’s going to get done.

Let us start with the recognition that today is Mother’s Day and that every soul in this room was born of a mother.

Sometimes that relationship went well from there. And sometimes not.

For those who can wholly celebrate their mothers’ enduring presence and wisdom in their life, we gathered here – we celebrate that with you.

This is not a competition. The world may teach us that we are supposed to be better than everybody else, that for somebody to win, somebody else has to lose, that if you are all happy, I am going to be talking about you behind your back.

You know what I say about that?

I say that is from Hell. Those are the world’s values. Those are not God’s values. That is not love of my neighbor. So I look on Facebook or I look around this room and I see that you have an incredible relationship with your wonderful mother and y’all had brunch together today and it is all so happy.

For those you who have great relationships with your mothers and great relationships with your children and all or any of the things that are supposed to make this a great day, I say blessings on you for your joy.

But that may not be the relationship that you have – or had – with your mother. Or maybe your mother was wonderful, but she’s gone. Maybe gone earlier from your life. Or maybe, excruciatingly, just recently.

So maybe you look at the fact of Mother’s Day and your heart hurts. You look at all those blasted sappy Hallmark cards and you look all those smiling brunch pictures and your heart hurts.

But you know what we are going to do tonight?  We are going to celebrate. We are going to be happy that we were born onto this Earth of a woman who – for whatever was going on in her life – did what she could do. For some of us that was grand and wonderful and perfect. And for those of you among us, those people who know this day as a joyful one, we rejoice with you.

Even as we grieve our own losses. What was. What was not. What could never be. What has been lost to us.

We rejoice with you. You acknowledge our pain. That is the compassion born to you.

Together we are healed. Together we look upon the faces of women in this world and we give thanks and we know and release our pain and we forgive.

We can say the same for the mothering we have or have not done. We who have given birth to a child may rightly rejoice on this day. Thank God for our children. But at the same time it is no less true that there are hearts which are broken – hearts to whom a child was denied. Or lost. The suffering. Oh my God. Women who for whatever reason wanted a child that was denied to them. Or bore a child who could not be the child they dreamed of. Or who didn’t want a child and somehow felt the judgment of the world. Or maybe there are no words.

It takes a village, my friends. No truer words have ever been said. Somehow all of us have to come to this moment in our lives.

This evening, you know what we do? We celebrate. We celebrate all the good mothering that happens in this world. That good mothering happens through biological mothers and through incredible women who offer that into the world because that’s what they do.

Thank God for all the mothering that happens in this world. Thank God that we do not have to rely on some single chain of biology for us to give or for us to receive.

While I tend to shy away from describing God as a Father or as a Mother because I believe that God is way, way, way beyond our human conceptions of gender and role, let us fully assert in this moment that in our life – no matter who we are separated from in this earthly realm, no matter what – we are wholly immersed in the love of God.

Whatever the best love that you got from your mama or that you didn’t get for but yearned for from your mama? That? That is the love that God wraps you in every minute of every day. And whatever love that you have to give? The love that you would give to a child? God calls upon us to offer that back into the world.

Because the world so desperately needs it.

You get to decide what that looks like.

Know that the world needs a mother’s love. And that you – whether or not you are anybody’s biological mama – and in the unlikely event that you are a man and sure ain’t going to be anybody’s biological mama – the world and its people still need that kind of love. And you, my friends, by the nature of being here, by the nature of listening to the call of God can consider yourself summoned to provide it.

The world needs the kind of love we are supposed to learn from our mamas. If you received that kind of love in your life, excellent! Turn around and share it. If you didn’t, well then, you know what you missed. Help make sure no one goes without it.

Now let’s turn to our Scripture to teach us something about what it means to do this work in the world.

Women’s work, that is.

We look tonight at the story of Deborah, kept deep in the book of Judges – which is not a book we preach from too much in our tradition because it’s hard. These are not for the most part the easy stories of morality, our legacy of ethics and tradition.

Judges is a brutal book, the story of the Israelites, finally settled in Canaan, getting it wrong over and over again and finding themselves accountable to God for that fact. The Israelites have spent their time wandering in the wilderness under Moses and Aaron. They’ve followed Joshua in gaining control of their promised land. They occupy this territory now and they are trying to figure out how to live.

Brutal, bloody stuff. This is not a pretty story, but it is a powerful one.

In the Hebrew Bible, judges are not judges quite like we think of them today. We’re not talking formal courts and appointed or elected legal arbiters. The judges of this book are respected leaders. They are the folks that others turned to for wisdom and direction.

And of all things the amazing thing in this incredibly patriarchal society? One of them was a woman. Her name was Deborah.

Deborah was a prophet and a wise woman. Under her leadership, the people of Israel defeated those who were attempting to conquer them. And under Deborah the Israelites lived and prospered and stayed faithful – those folks had a real hard time with false idols sometimes – but they stayed faithful for 40 years.

That’s pretty amazing. This text tonight is a part of the song that affirms their victory. And we hear Deborah named as a mother in Israel.

A mother in Israel?

We don’t know if Deborah was the biological mother of children. We don’t know the story of her family life. But we do know here that through her wisdom and skill, she gives birth to something very, very important – 40 years of peace and faithful living on this land.

Let’s think about this for a moment – she gives birth to peace in the land. She is a woman called to do important work and she does it seriously.

On this Mother’s Day, we celebrate the literal births – the wonders of children and family. But I also put to each of you – what do you want to give birth to?

It may be children – literally. Precious beings you guide in this world.

For you, it might be a community of nurturing and care for other people’s children. Or other people’s mothers. Or for people who have no family of their own.

Deborah does not do this work alone She’s faithful to God and she works with others. She summons Barak and together they lead an army. And through her prophecy, Deborah knows that the courage of yet another woman will bring them a key victory – a bold woman named Jael who single-handedly killed the Canaanite general Sisera to secure the peace.

What can you give birth to?

Maybe you give birth to a great idea, something that makes a difference not only in your own life but in the lives of those around you.

Ella Baker gave birth to a powerful grassroots organizing tradition in the Civil Rights movement. Dorothy Day gave birth to the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City during the Great Depression, Jane Addams gave birth to the Settlement House Movement for immigrant welfare in early 20th century Chicago. Rachel Carson gave birth to the modern environmental movement.

Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Adrienne Rich and Mary Oliver and Sandra Cisneros and Denise Levertov and Barbara Kingsolver have given birth to words in the shape of poems and stories and essays and novels, words that move us and teach us and change us, words that will endure for centuries.

In the country of Myanmar, Aung Sung Suu Kyi gave birth to a non-violent revolution that ended decades of military dictatorship.

I know dozens of women – some of them in right here in this room – who have given birth to communities of love and care, where people find connection and friendship and prayers and support. Women who mother children and grown children who are not theirs by birth all the time.

Thank God for that. It sure enough takes a village to raise any child or even to live in this world – and we give birth to and sustain that village for one another each and every day.

Sixteen years ago a group of women – and men –  gave birth to this church. Today we all tend it, nurture, keep it growing with a deeds and our wisdom.  Who says you even have to be a woman to give birth to the stuff of a better world? This is a message for us all.

In 1971 in East Harlem, New York, a former Black Panther named Afeni Shakur gave birth to Tupac. I have great respect for hip hop and hip hop culture, but I don’t claim it as my own. But of course I know Tupac and appreciate his work and his genius. As some of the friends in my Facebook feed began to call the name of Afeni Shakur on Monday morning and to mark her sudden passing, I started to pay attention.

Afeni Shakur was a mother – a mother who grieved the tragic death of her gifted son – a mother who grieved for and fought the sins of the world, its systemic evils of racism, sexism, and economic disparity. Even before Tupac was born, Afeni helped give birth to a chapter of the Black Panther Movement, nurturing along others in the struggle for a world of freedom and equality for black people. Later, in her sorrows about the world, Afeni mired herself in the awful clutches of drug addiction. She became dependent on crack cocaine. And then she gave birth to a new life for herself. She got clean and stayed that way, even after Tupac’s devastating murder. She gave birth to a foundation from his earnings, reaching out to people in need and good causes all over this country and indeed around the world. She continued this work up until the time of her death this week.

In that time, she also gave birth to this wisdom, which I share with you this evening –

In this speech, she’s been talking about the example of the great Sojourner Truth, the 19th century former slave, herself a mother of enslaved children, who fought men to gain rights for women and white people to gain rights for blacks during the post Civil War Reconstruction and the ugly early grip of Jim Crow and the lynch law.

Afeni Shakur instructs us – “Things are worse that you think. Worse, much worse, than you think. But remember Sojourner. Don’t make no difference how bad they are. It is our responsibility to look it square in the face and say ‘What should I start with? Where shall I begin?’ You hear what I’m saying? That is what it is that all of us must do.”

Afeni Shakur stared at the face of her own pain, the irreconcilable loss of a child and she tells us – and this is a quote “You can do this thing. You can turn that garbage, that pain, that awfulness, you can turn it into something else. We must challenge each other to do that. . .  [we must ask ourselves] What can I do different with this pain? I am not asking you to do something that I didn’t do.”

Look around you at how messed up this world is. Look at your own pain – whatever its source, I know it’s there. Look at the example of Deborah, a mother of Israel, who in the middle of a society that viewed women as property made her way to leadership and gave birth to 40 years of peace and faithfulness among the Israelites. Look to Afeni Shakur and know that though there is pain, there is also life. We can live life and we can give and nurture life. Whether it’s a biological child or the hopes and dreams of child that’s not our own or an idea or a poem or a way to save the world.

So we have this day.

What do you rejoice in?

What must you grieve?

What you might you give birth to?  In ways traditional or something altogether new.

What will you do?

Amen.

 

Communion, Room 304

“Are you my sister?”
asked the white-haired
woman stretched out
in bed as I
stepped
from the harsh
light of the noisy
hallway to
her side.

Blinds drawn tight.
A pair of highback
wheelchairs parked
on hard tile
against the doors
of dark
wooden
closets,
set as out
of the way
as they
could be.

“No ma’am
I’m from
the church.
I came
to visit.”

She smiled then
returned to
some distress
I could
not see.

Moving a chair
beside her bed
I tried to
reassure.

We spoke of the
sleeping woman
in the
bed next to
her own.

“Maybe she’s
my sister.”

“Maybe
I want
something
to eat.”

“I brought
communion but
that might not
be enough?
We’ll see
I guess.”

I dipped the
dry wafer in
the juice and
placed it in
her mouth.

She chewed
silently for one
moment, then
another.

“How about we pray?”
I asked.

She touched
my hand.
“Your hands
are cold”
she said.

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“So cold. Let me
warm them.”

She took
my hands
and cradled
them in
hers.

That
was
our
prayer.

On Why It’s Hard to Be a Christian in Today’s World

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could retreat into my little bubble of middle-class privilege and really not give a damn about the suffering of poor people and the ways in which our economic system benefits the very few at the expense of the many.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I and my white self could hide behind some vague notion of colorblindness and ignore the very real violence being done to black and brown bodies in this country and around the world. I could refuse to see and refuse to change a system that feeds on fundamental inequities in the distribution of power and wealth, that enshrines racism as a means of divide-and-conquer.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could skip the outrage at our ravaging of the planet for the sake of human profit, our disregard of life beyond our own, our denial of our complicity in past, present, and future environmental disasters.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could tell homophobic people – all of them – to just fuck off rather than to continue to work toward mutual relationship and meaningful dialogue.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could stare at people with disabilities and think there was something wrong with them instead of with a culture that denies their full individual humanity and refuses to embrace them for their diversity and their contributions.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could think that people who disagree with me are stupid rather than working to value them as fellow precious children of God.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could stereotype, judge, and dehumanize Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and people of any other faith or no faith at all and do my best to keep my distance from them.

It’s hard being a Christian – because then I could see people dying across the globe from preventable wars, preventable diseases, and preventable hunger and thirst without losing sleep over it. I could see those problems as some fault of their own rather than of a global system that has for centuries robbed entire nations of their assets and their autonomy, often with the approval and even the assistance of the Christian church.

God, it is hard to be a Christian in today’s world.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Christianity – or any religious perspective – is not the only reason people care about these things. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just talking about where I come from. I fully affirm the idea that non-Christians and non-religious people can have grounded and nuanced ethics. If that’s you, all props to you and peace and strength to you for your work.

And there are certainly Christians who disagree with what I’ve said here – to y’all, I say . . . I say . . . I say that you are my family in this faith and I hope we can be in conversation about what living out that faith looks like in our contemporary world. I will listen to you with an open heart. I hope you will receive me in the same spirit (Spirit).

Stuck and Unstuck: A Lenten Reflection

A gracious, wide crape myrtle stands in our yard near the street.

During certain times of the year, leaves and seed pods from that lovely tree fall in just such a pattern as to block a few critical inches of our driveway. The drainage path to the curb gets clogged up.

And then I find myself pulling up during a rainstorm to step out of the car into ankle-deep water. I slosh across the driveway to that one corner and, in my already sodden shoes, kick the minuscule, problematic bundle of leaves, seed pods, and twigs out into the water flowing along the gutter.

As I make my way inside to shuck my wet shoes, the driveway begins to drain.

We could pull all sorts of lessons out this story, but there’s one that really interests me during Lent.

Every one of us gets stuck sometimes. Sometimes it’s a huge thing and we have to figure out an appropriate way to address that. At others, however, it’s something small.

Sometimes we get stuck on the small things.

They might mess with our capacity to show compassion and kindness in the world. They might keep us from seeing the pain of a neighbor. They might cause us to get mired in a muddle of self-condemnation. Or we might just feel stuck and not even know why.

This time in the Christian year allows us the opportunity to slow down and pay attention. Somewhere in that process of prayer and practice, we might notice what’s got us stuck.

Lent invites us to consider the small things that could make a big difference. Sometimes it’s exactly those small things in our lives that block us in our quest to follow Jesus.

*this was first published as a part of Beloved Community Church’s Lenten Reflection Series. Check out the site to see past reflections and sign up to receive future ones – http://us8.campaign-archive1.com/home/u=b0ec53794d5302e54ac84ec3b&id=9ea25a5d37