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).

Globalization and the Value of Life

I’ve been thinking about an interview I heard the other day on the radio with a union worker who, defying his union leadership, supports Donald Trump (note: this is NOT a post about a particular candidate – this is a systemic problem and that’s what I want to emphasize).

His rationale was that illegal immigration is the cause of the weak job market. He believes that Trump is the man to fix that and thus restore us to an economy filled with well-paying working class jobs.

That this gentleman blames immigrant workers rather than globalization for the gutting of the earned wage economy in this country points to a central problematic narrative – one which is expertly manipulated – in our national discourse.

If this gentleman’s analysis did extend to globalization, it’s not unlikely that he would blame fellow workers around the globe rather than the system that pits his labor against theirs to detriment of both (and the planet) and for the enrichment of the people who created the system.

Modern globalization of world capital really began with the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) in 1948. It was further fertilized by the Uruguay Round of negotiations that took place from 1986-1994, resulting in the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Look at those years – that’s Reagan, HW Bush, and Clinton. This is a BIPARTISAN doing. The Doha round of negotiations began under W Bush and continues to this day under Obama. NAFTA started under HW Bush and was signed by Clinton. CAFTA has been signed (and almost certainly the TPP will be) on Obama’s watch.

The result is the concentration of wealth through the accumulation of capital by the very few. In the process, many of the rest of us have been literally invested in the system enough (think 401Ks over pensions) to have a stake in its preservation, but we should be under no illusion that we are its real or intended beneficiaries.

And the rest of the people – the millions of people in this country who will never have a decent paying job and who have no accumulated wealth to fall back on and the billions of people around the world whose national economies have been violently stripped of any residual capacity they had to be self-sustaining in the wake of colonialism – those people are desperate and in the cold light of globalization, they are disposable.

The majority of the world’s population has value only to the extent that they are consumers (whether they earn, borrow, receive, or steal the funds to support their consumption habit). And our ecosystems have value only as economic commodities.

This represents the height of dehumanization and crushing mechanism of environmental destruction. It is a political problem, an economic problem, and an environmental problem. It is a moral, cultural, and theological problem.

We cannot address if we do not see it for what it is.

Social Justice and the Healthy Self: Parenting for a Better World

When my daughter was around a year old, I took her with me one evening to a peace movement meeting. Never one with much patience for quietly sitting still (can’t imagine where she got that from), she wiggled and wriggled and made all the quiet and not so quiet noises that little ones make. We got a couple of looks from people.  I ended up trying – and failing – to slip away silently, reflecting with some sorrow on the seeming incompatibility of parenting and social justice work. It wasn’t just this episode, but that night epitomized the complexity of trying to be dedicated to so many things.

A few days later, I encountered an older-than-me activist friend and I told her about my dilemma. “What am I supposed to do?” I mourned, “I feel like I can’t be everywhere I am supposed to be. There’s so much to do.”

I can still see us standing there on the sidewalk, me in my angst and her with her kind smile and thoughtful energy. “It’s okay,” she said, “take care of your daughter. Do what you need to do. There will always be work to be done.”

While it counts as a tragic fact that the need for social justice organizing may never end, what she said is true. It brought me necessary peace and new clarity about pacing myself for the long haul.

It’s like this – now that I’ve been a parent for 15 years, I can assert with confidence that good parenting is an inherently important, albeit ever-challenging, task. Dedicating our time and love and energy to raising the next generation matters. These are the people – even if it’s hard to see it while they’re in diapers – who will guide the steps of our world long after we are gone.

Our humanity begins at home. It’s the crucible from which we find our place in the world, whether we are 3 or 23 or 53 or 93. Creating a home that fosters love and kindness and justice and mercy is a gift to the world. It is a moral good to do that work and no one should feel guilty about it.

At the same time, It’s a continual invitation to see beyond the boundaries of one’s own family.  You remember the whole “it takes a village to raise a child” concept? It’s true. And we are all a part of that village for other people’s children (and everyone who is breathing on this earth is someone’s child).

Parenting is an intimate lesson in our interconnectedness. It is an immersion course. And while the intensity of daily routines, especially with young children, may consume every waking moment, it is possible to view that work as both intrinsically morally justified and as unique preparation for an ongoing lifetime of loving the world and the people in it.

You don’t have to do all of the work at once. The fact is you probably can’t. That you are concerned about this problem reflects the depth of your commitment to both your family and the cause of a better world. That helps to keep you from sinking into the pernicious view where the only thing that matters is you and yours.

But please let go of the guilt and frustration about what you can’t do in this moment. Just put it down. You’ve got enough to carry without it.

And by all means, when it seems the right thing to do, carry your kids to meetings and protests and lobbying days. Let us as a movement cultivate connections and community among social justice-oriented parents and between parents of young children and the other generations around them.

We as that movement have the obligation to create kid-friendly spaces and to nurture both the young children in our midst and the families that care for them. That is a part of how we offer concrete care for those around us.

What I am saying is not limited to biological and adoptive parents, for there are many ways that people care for others. A lot of parenting gets done by people who are not the actual mother and father of any given child – and that is a huge blessing. We also care for parents and grandparents and others who at any given time may need some extra help.

That too is necessary. It is vital to our very humanity as well as the needs of the moment. It should be seen as a part of the work for a better world, not as a distraction from it. The methods connect on every level to the ends we seek.

These days when we get home after school, my daughter sets herself up at the kitchen table and disappears into hours of homework. Since I’m now the mom of a disciplined and independent-minded high school student, I have a little more time to be involved in social justice work. I’m glad of it.

But some things don’t change. When my daughter, having a hard week in the way that can happen with GEOMETRY-HOMEWORK-IS-IMPOSSIBLE-I-DON’T-KNOW-HOW-TO-DO-IT (yeah, that’s a quote) wanted me to stay home last night instead of attend a community event that was on my calendar, I had no trouble making the choice. Balancing obligations can still be tricky. I continue to regularly examine my own priorities and their effects on the people close to me, on my broader community, and on my commitment to justice in the world.

But I long ago put down that parental guilt (well, at least that part of it) to claim the challenging and satisfying role of social justice parent. I invite others to do the same.

Beyond the Usual: On Lent and Black History Month

Easter comes early this year. As a consequence, so does Lent.

For that reason, Lent coincides to a substantial degree with Black History Month.

As a white person, I understand Black History Month as a time for me to listen and to learn. It’s a time to hear stories and bear witness.  There are notable figures, overlooked by conventional history books, who have contributed to science and art, to politics and philosophy, to education and to faith. These accomplishments matter to black people and they matter to the rest of us, often far more than we know. They enrich the whole of human existence.

By the end of February, if I’m paying attention, I will know more of the triumphs and joys as well as the sufferings and sorrows of the history of African Americans in this country. It takes intentional effort to see beyond my own whiteness and the lens that comes with it. It takes looking beyond the history I’ve been taught and beyond the white experience that is used as the default in education and popular media.

The call of Lent and the call of Black History Month have a lot in common.

Lent is a season for listening and for learning. It’s a time to hear the stories of others, especially others who are different from us – and most especially a time to listen to the voices of people that our society places at the margins. It’s a time to try to understand the lens that we use to see the world.

Lent offers us the opportunity to repent not only of our individual sins but of our collective cultural sins. We can open our hearts to the triumphs and joys and the sorrows and sufferings of others. We are called to stop long enough and listen closely enough to hear the stories that get drowned out because they disturb or disrupt or threaten to upend our comforts.

Black History Month is a chance to look beyond the usual stories we are fed by the world.

Lent is also a chance to look beyond the usual stories we are fed by the world.

I pray we do so.

*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 

Social Justice and the Healthy Self: Starting the Conversation

Social justice work is supposed to be selfless, right?

We’re out there trying to make the world a better place for everybody. The work demands all that we have to give – and then some.

For those of us driven by a passion for social justice – whether our work is religious or secular –  the needs of the world are so great that they tend to eclipse any focus on ourselves, on our own wellbeing and balance.

Organizing and activism and protest and movement building.
Speaking and arguing and writing and fundraising.
Issues and outrage.
Showing up and showing up again
and showing up again.

Caring.
Caring a lot.
Caring so much,
even when it’s frustrating,
even when it seems futile,
even when the world feels like a bleak, dark, mean place.

It’s the work we do.

And when we’re tempted to set it aside for a minute to tend to our own needs or our family’s needs, it’s mighty easy to feel guilty about that. For most people I know, that guilt is self-imposed (‘but I’m not doing ENOUGH’). Yet if we happen to escape the self-imposed guilt, there’s usually someone around to raise an eyebrow. We’re supposed to be selfless.

Except there’s a problem.

We can’t be selfless. We are always our own selves. I carry my physical body, emotions, spiritual life, mental processing and cognition, personal and professional relationships, personality quirks, and history and experiences with me everywhere I go.

All of this is a part of me. I can ignore it – until something happens and I can’t ignore it any longer. Or I can work with it with in community with as much honesty, grace, and wisdom as I can muster and develop.

I am not suggesting feeding our own egos just for the sake of their insatiable ego-appetite. I’m talking about equilibrium. About integrity – not integrity-honesty (well, that too), but integrity as in structural integrity. Something that’s not going to fall in on itself when the winds or waves pick up or the ground starts to tremble beneath us.

There’s always a danger of self-indulgence. It can happen. But it’s much less likely to happen when we find equilibrium and stay both nimble and grounded. Most of us operate in communities that help keep us accountable. That also means that those communities need to recognize the need for the care of their members.

We work best when our mandate to care extends to ourselves and to the others around us. Better work – more honest, wise, and skillfully executed – comes from a better place.

Our selves are our strengths – they are our wit and wisdom, our intelligence, intensity, and insights, our willing hands and reflective consciousness. It’s our laughter and our joy. It’s our role as friend, parent, partner, spouse, cousin, neighbor, congregant, or student.

If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of anybody or anything else.

I’ve been a part of many conversations over the last few months and years that have dwelled on issues in the social justice community of physical health, mental health, burnout, despair (both personal and global), financial insecurity, family stress, nagging guilt, and spiritual melancholy. I hear how we’ve made an idol of busy-ness (a problem endemic in the larger culture as well). I hear how people are tired, aching physically and emotionally, overwhelmed with worry, and utterly joyless, how they mean to but don’t address their own spiritual malaise and critical health needs.

I bear witness to the transgender activists who have committed suicide over the last year and to Ohio Black Lives Matter organizer MarShawn McCarre who shot himself on the state capitol steps last week. We don’t take time to eat right, move our bodies, and kick back and enjoy good company. And if we do, we worry that we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do. I heard 3 different parents in one day lament that they feel like they’re neglecting social justice work because they are (wisely, rightly) tending to their young children.

We need to fix that. We need to change the narrative. The work will continue. It must continue. But we must also create a sustainable paradigm for social justice work. We must make a priority of our own health and wellbeing, our own deep joy, and our life-giving relationships with others.

There’s much more to say about this multi-faceted topic. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing in greater depth about different aspects of the problem. I’ll be posting other things as well, but these posts can be found  under the ‘social justice and the healthy self’ category.

I’d love to hear from social-justice oriented organizers and activists and clergy and academics about their thoughts and experiences on this topic. The About/Contact tab at the top of the page is one way to get in touch with me – and folks who know me can also reach out by other means.

Let’s work on this – for our own sake and for the sake of the causes we care so deeply about.

Critique and Creation: Why Social Change Requires Both

In a couple of different conversations on social change last week, I brought up an idea that I can neither lay claim to as an original thought nor attribute to a specific source. It has been said by many in any number of ways. However, it’s a fundamentally important practical point for community organizing and creating change in our world – and thus bears repeating, especially in our current climate. Even when we know something, we sometimes need to hear it again.

Effective social change work requires articulating a critique of the status quo and working to dismantle the structures that support that status quo.

Effective social change work also requires articulating a vision of alternatives to the dominant paradigm(s) and working to make those visions a feasible reality. It can be multiple visions of alternatives. Or a vision of multiple alternatives. One solution is probably not going to fit for everybody – and that’s okay as long as we can find a way to work within genuine pluralism*.

Sometimes we treat this work as either/or. We attack or we build. We create or we destroy. Such an approach has inherent limitations.

If all we do is critique, we risk leaving people in despair. We feed a climate of doom that forces others to look away so that they can function in daily life. We get bitter and frustrated and turn on one another. It burns out those who care and diffuses the energy needed to take on the powers-that-be.

If all we do is create a new path, we also limit our effectiveness. If people don’t understand the problematic nature of old institutions and patterns, they are much less likely to abandon the security the old system offers (even when it works against their own interests) for the uncertainty of something new. Familiarity is comfortable. Change is hard.

Without the component of active and articulated (not just implied) critique, it’s also harder to resist being co-opted – or crushed – by dominant structures. Compassionate and clear self-examination function best in a context of critical awareness. It helps keep us honest.

Not everybody is going to be good at both strands of the work. That’s okay. But the conversation as a whole has to include both components – and people of different gifts doing this work must listen to and respect one another. That’s not just head-nodding listening. That’s listening in such a way as to allow the other person’s insights and experiences change you and what you do and how you do it.

We have to do both. The conversation has to integrate both critique and creation. If it doesn’t, we make things harder than they need to be. And this work is difficult enough already, right?

 

* okay, that’s not at all a small caveat, but it represents a tangent here. We’ll come back to that another day.

For the Common Good sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11   

I spent some time on Friday following one of the heritage walks downtown in the Civil Rights district. If you’ve been downtown at all, you’ve probably passed and read some of those signs that mark significant events and places in Birmingham’s Civil Rights history. Though there are currently four separate march routes that spread across several blocks each, I’ve always read individual signs by happenstance, usually through my car window as I’m stopped at a red light.

I had never followed a whole path before. So Friday – on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s actual calendar birthday –  I decided to make the time to not only walk through Kelly Ingram Park, but also to trace the route that covers the Selective Shopping campaign, the economic resistance that led to peaceful protest and violent response.

Foot soldiers and firehoses. Pickets and police dogs. Even though we know the history – some of you lived through it – it never ceases to hold new lessons for us. It is a part of who we are and who we will become. It is a part of our context. Walking that whole path brings a vivid sense of our city’s history and of how that continues to shape our journey forward as we seek – or not – common ground and the common good.

This letter of Paul’s to the Corinthians is born of another specific context and it speaks into that context. It’s one of a series of letters – only 2 of which have been preserved – from Paul to a congregation that he had founded some years before. Much of the letter consists of his pastoral responses to their questions.

He’s giving them practical advice about being church together in that time and that place and with those people. Corinth in this era is a big, bustling Greek port city with a diverse population. The people of Corinth were trying to live out the teachings of Jesus in the middle of a busy urban area and in the middle of the call of their daily lives. In the hearing of this passage you can probably already begin to imagine how it might apply it to the life of our times.

The conversations we have in this church are always in a specific context too. We are looking at the challenges of finding and getting used to a new pastor. We bring the busy-ness of the past week and the anticipation of the week ahead of us. We come with the awareness of endless political squabbling, bloodshed in both distant lands and here in our own city, water from the tap in Flint, Michigan that has been unsafe to drink for more a YEAR and HALF and somebody’s just now doing something about it. We’ve got the passing from this earthly life of some of our most loved cultural icons. And we come together this night on the eve of the day that asks us to remember the life and the witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

That’s our context too. This is what we share, our common life.

Paul is trying to help the Corinthians deal with what’s going on in their shared life. The problems we confront today are both similar and different. As I read the passage from Paul and thought about this holiday weekend and all that’s going on in the world, I started thinking about these words of civil rights activist, scholar, friend and biographer of Martin Luther King, a man by the name of Vincent Harding.

Harding describes one of our problems in this way – and it’s a danger that is so concrete in this time in our country – he says “For you know and I know so many people who believe that the comfortable darkness in which they now live is the best thing they could ever have, and that everything else is much too risky. And many of you know all the people who are quite sure that they cannot change the habits of their lives and try out a new America.”

Often we look at what we CAN’T do. Or if we look at what we can do, we think somehow it’s not good enough. It’s not important enough. WE are not enough. And when we get stuck in that place, we fail to see what we have to give. We get so wrapped up in our shortcomings and self-doubt that we don’t risk sharing our real and needed gifts with one another.

If we can’t be and do everything, we can fall into the trap of thinking it’s safer to do nothing. We might not take the risk of offering ourselves into a society that has been known to shred people body and soul. Or we think if we give of ourselves we’ll give it all up. There won’t be anything left. We don’t have faith that God is at work in the world and that the world can be transformed through God’s abundant love. We don’t have faith that God is at work in us and through us.

What this passage makes clear is that all of our gifts and talents are important – and are needed. Pick the metaphor that works for you: the puzzle comes together when we all put in our pieces; the painting takes its final form only when we each add our brushstrokes; the choir sounds right only when all of our voices join in. That’s a just a start on the metaphors.

But whichever image you hold in mind, Paul is telling us that the church and the world recognize and need our diverse gifts. That’s a joy. And that’s a responsibility. Paul does not – because Jesus does not – give us much space to stay out of everything. We might want to hide.

And to be clear, we’re all allowed a day on the couch or some time spent staring at the TV. If we don’t pace ourselves, it’s going to be hard to keep at it. But our world needs us. Our world needs people to bring the love of God into our common life, for the common good. Because our culture hides our fundamental interdependence from us. We need something beyond ourselves, but we don’t always see it that way.

Hear the words of Dr. King. At Riverside Church in New York in April 1967, he preached, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

To create what King calls a person-oriented society, we have to honor and nurture the gifts of ALL people. We must see the beautiful diversity that God has put into this world – diversity among our humanity and among our ecosystems – as our treasure here on earth.

A people-oriented society affirms that there is a variety of gifts, but always the same Spirit;

That there is a variety of ministries, but we serve the same One;

That there is a variety of outcomes, but the same God is working in all of them;

That to EACH PERSON is given the manifestation of the Spirit FOR THE COMMON GOOD.

Each person. Each. Person. For the common good. Even as we strive to find the courage to share our own gifts in this world, we must also look for the gifts in others.

EVERYBODY has a role to play in following the example of Jesus.

EVERYBODY has a role to play in the active witness of THIS church.

EVERYBODY has a role to play in making Jesus’ love manifest in a world where the dominant cultural narrative going on 50 YEARS after the death of Martin Luther King is STILL one of

commercialism,
racism,
sexism,
ableism,
heterosexism and homophobia, and
hatred of our neighbors disguised as so-called patriotism.

We all know there’s evil. A lot of it resides in our systems and structures, in the ways that they protect the powerful and sacrifice the powerless. And sadly it resides in people. Some people are so damaged by this world that all they can do is spread that pain around. It leeches out of them and separates them from their own humanity and from their capacity to bear witness to our shared humanity.

That, my friends, is what sin looks like. And we live in a world that profits off of sin and death and despair. But the Gospel response to that is not MORE SIN and MORE DEATH and MORE DESPAIR.

The Gospel response to that is life and connection and the use of our own gifts and valuing of the gifts of others. We strive toward a world where no one is an outcast, no one is stranger, right? In the name of Jesus Christ, we seek to heal the wounds of sin, the pain of separation, the damage that we human beings do to one another and to the earth.

We are called in our diversity to make compassion and justice a reality, to create a world where we do not damage the hearts and minds, the souls and bodies, of one another. That is a world in which the love and example of Jesus Christ indeed reigns supreme.

There is work to be done – maybe more work than ever – and that work is the task given by the Gospels to us all. If we listen to Paul, however, we realize that we do not all have to do it the same way. We just have to pick up our God-given gifts and use them to make the love of God manifest in a world that so desperately needs it.

We are NOT working for what theologian Holly Hearon calls “the false peace of the status quo”. We are working together – we MUST work together – for a world where God’s justice and God’s love are made real for each and every soul and for all of Creation. That is the common good.

The world feeds us shallow commodified consumer-oriented relationships. It draws us to mute – or not so mute – idols that will lead us astray. It sparks in us not only the desire to judge one another, even over the most trivial things, but a sense that we are ENTITLED to judge one another, even over the most trivial things.

It teaches us that we NEVER have enough and yet lures us with the promise that that next purchase, that next THING we acquire will fulfill us, will make us content.

True contentment can only come from being

right with God,
right with ourselves, and
right with one another.

There’s no way we can achieve that all the time. But in relationship with God and with one another, we can make that our intention. It can be our compass point.

And when we do this right, we all carry one another all along the way.

We all use whatever gifts we bring, whether it’s the widow’s mite or Mary’s attention or Martha’s hospitality to contribute to the common good.

In this congregation there are healers and there are prophets. We have wisdom in discourse and the word of knowledge among the people here. Among the people here in this room right now. And we got a lot – a LOT – of faith.

In this place, there are community organizers and artists. There are people who build and people who teach and people who feed. There are caregivers and financial stewards. Some of you create safe spaces and others brave spaces. We need both.

In this place, there are people whose work contributes to the well-being of the vulnerable and often marginalized among us – children, the elderly, those with mental illness, the poor, the immigrant, LGBTQ people. There are people who show up and put their shoulders to whatever needs to be done wherever they are, day in and day out.

And it may be that some of y’all have miraculous powers. I don’t doubt it for a minute.

Claim your God-given gifts with the humility and confidence that comes of knowing that you are a child of God. Then use them in ways that are small and ways that are large to make this world into a place that honors that of God that dwells within each person.

That is the common good.

We’re not all good at everything – and everything is not all about us, but this church has always been a place where the boundaries of community are porous. We don’t circle up and make a big deal about US and THEM.

The lines between us sitting up here as a church congregation and the world out there – that’s always a thin line here, one that allows us not only to see the pain – and the beauty of the world around us, but to use our gifts for the common good.

Let us do that work.

Amen.

if it’s always darkest just before the dawn, we ought to have one hell of a sunrise

If only every child could flee to Egypt
could go another way
when evil
creeps astride or
breaks the glass or
holds out its arms.

Bullets in babies
strangled boys huddled by their beds
girls who went to gather firewood and water
and instead found death.

School children and more
school children.

Though Herod got it wrong
the massacre of innocents has become
a daily feast of bloodshed.

 

 

 


* this was written a while back, but today I’ll add a dedication to the memory of Tamir Rice

 

Which Christmas? sermon: Colossians 3:12-17

It’s a pleasure to be here among you this morning and to be working with the words from this epistle.

Colossians is a complicated text in a number of ways, but the Scripture for this week, right here in the heart of Christmas, offers us some really useful words as we look to make sense of where we are in this moment.

And where exactly are we?

Advent, the beginning of the Christian year, that time of hope and expectation, is over.

Christmas the Consumer holiday is over. Now we’re into the After-Christmas sales. I’ve heard Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus enough times for at least another 11 months. Maybe for twice – or three times or ten times – that long.

Christmas the family holiday is over, for better and for worse. Some people are still fellow-shipping, still traveling, but a lot of folks have begun to make their way home or at least are making preparations to do so.

Christmas the long weekend this year is about over.

BUT

Christmas the Christian observance is still with us, right?

A child was born in Bethlehem in a stable because there was no room in the inn. According to the Christian calendar, this is the Christmas season. The good news is made manifest among us. Jesus is born into the world. That event happened on Christmas Day and because of that, as this Scripture holds before us, the Word of Christ, rich as it is, can dwell in us.

It’s a moment of opportunity, yet it’s all too easy in the busy-ness of the season to let this moment of opportunity slip by us.  The great poet WH Auden puts the risk to us this way:

Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away

That’s the risk of the present moment.

Do we contain Christmas too much?
Do we make it into a single moment defined by our human standards of a holiday?
Do we make it about the presents that come in boxes instead of the presence of Jesus in our world?
Do we skip too quickly to the next thing?

We don’t have to. The Christian calendar gives us 12 days.  Christmas lasts until we mark the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Here in the United States we have often failed to pay attention to that. But in doing so we missed something important and I’m glad to reclaim it.

It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world in the form of a migrant baby.

It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world as a helpless infant in a time of empire.

It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world as an embodied rejection of our material concepts of power and privilege.

This is the good news, the Christmas Spirit, the mystery –  this improbable reality that the prince of peace was born in a stable.

It takes more than a morning crowded with wrapping paper and excitement and ham to figure out what that good news means for the essential question of how I am to live? And how are we to live together? We need some time – and we need it each year because the quiet steady voice of God is easily drowned out by the noise of our culture.

The 12 days of Christmas give us that chance, that opportunity to take this transformative moment and put it to work in us.

We’re on day 3. Can I interest anyone in some French hens? That’s where the song comes from, right?

Okay, maybe those are hard to come by in Birmingham, but we can still find gifts of this day and of the remaining days of Christmas. We can work on this question of how to live Christmas.

The period of Christmas takes us from 2015 into 2016. It binds the old calendar year with the new.

And how does it carry us forward?  What can help us to mark this ongoing Christmas season in our own lives, this sacred time?

The text today provides useful instruction. In a passage that precedes our text, we hear these words:

What you have done is put aside your old self with its past deeds and put on a new self, one that grows in knowledge as it is formed anew in the image of its Creator.

For the month of December, we had our Christmas sweaters, didn’t we? Reindeer socks and Santa hats.  Maybe you go for the garish or maybe you have that one item that fits perfectly and feels so good. One look at it when you pull it out of storage reminds you of all the season has to offer, so that when you put it on, it fills you with delight.

But now that we’ve left those other Christmas’s behind, we start to pack those clothes away. The passage from Colossians we read today tells what we could wear for the rest of Christmas. Hear it again – clothe yourselves with heartfelt compassion, with kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Above all else, put on love, which binds the rest together.

How’s that for a Christmas outfit? Think about wearing these things. You get out of the bed and – because of Jesus’s presence in this world and in your life, you put on heartfelt compassion. You put on kindness. You put on humility and gentleness and patience.

What if that were to be our uniform as Christians? Every single day. When you wear something it touches you all the time. You feel it. It goes with you all day long. It’s a part of your identity.  It’s a visible marker of who you are.

These days I have to get up each morning and figure out if it’s going to be 35 or 75 degrees on any given day. You know what I mean, right? And then I’ll get the right clothes out.

But no matter what the weather is outside, no matter what the circumstances, no matter whether you are going to the grocery store or to a book club meeting, if you’re going to work or to a wedding – you can clothe yourself in compassion and kindness and humility and gentleness and patience and love. No matter what.

It’s important to say this – that doesn’t mean we let people run all over us. But it means:
if you speak truth to power, you do so from a place of love;
if you call out the meanness of the world, you do so with humility and kindness;
when you face the community-breaking miseries of institutional racism and structural poverty and ingrained homophobia and ableism, you confront them clothed in the wisdom and peace that comes from knowing Jesus in your life. We are called to instruct and admonish one another wisely.

If we keep working with that Scripture, we learn more. We hear the call to forgive and to dedicate ourselves to gratitude, the call to sing joyfully to God and to let peace reign in our hearts. This takes practice. This is active work and often difficult work.

But if we make it our practice, if we make it the work of this moment, if we use this time of Christmas to focus on these disciplines, we begin to live into the sacredness of time – not just at Christmas, but all the time.

Jesus Christ was born into a world of fear and poverty and great distance between the powerful and the powerless. Does that sound familiar? And furthermore we live in a world of feuds and fights, of death and destruction, of shootings and storms.

I don’t know about you, but on Christmas night I was wondering if somebody pulled up the wrong story. It wasn’t supposed to be the Ark story. This was supposed to be about Jesus, not Noah.  But we are not in control all the time, are we? That’s part of the stark reality of living as human beings.

There are so many things that are out of our control.
But how I treat someone else is in my control.
How we treat one another is in our control.
How we live our time as sacred time is in our control.

So which Christmas do we carry forward? We remember the joys – and the limitations – of the consumer Christmas. We treasure the moments of the holiday celebrations with friends and family and church family. And in these 12 days of Christmas – the heart of the Christian observance:

let us put aside our old selves and live new in Christ
let us clothe ourselves in heartfelt compassion and love
let us forgive
let us allow peace to reign in our hearts
let us dedicate ourselves to gratitude
let us permit the rich word of Christ to dwell in us
let us sing joyfully to God

and whatever we do as we go about our daily routines, let us remember that we are formed in the image of God – and so is everyone around us. Jesus was born among us. Let us each carry that good news into the new day.