Reinvent Advent: God’s Edict

At First Presbyterian, we are having a Bob Dylan Advent, in which a Dylan song and its themes will be featured in worship. This is the selection for the First Sunday. 

Too many Christians misunderstand Advent. It has morphed into preparation for Christmas, like so many sale of the season events. It is capitalistic penultima, Advent is; the sitting on Santa’s lap of religious seasons. My Christian Socialism shows most during Advent. I lose Facebook friends because I decry the rank hypocrisy of White, Evangelical Protestant, American Christianity turning a Middle Eastern Jewish communalist with a penchant for radical insurrection into a blonde-haired Aryan with a rifle in one hand and the GOP Platform in the other. A message of financial rebellion and dedication to higher pursuits has been replaced by teaching kids that you know Jesus loves you more because Santa brought you an iPad while the kid in the ghetto gets a bullet through the window. I see American Christmas as being a skosh more classist than it is racist, but that’s a race won by a hair not a hectare.

The first Sunday in Advent is very special to me. I begin my assignment at First Presbyterian on the First Sunday of Advent, 2013. If I were a president, I would be entering the final year of my first term. A lot has changed since the early years of my Administration, if we are going to extend the metaphor; while it is Year A once more, I have given up the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in favor of the Narrative Lectionary (NL), for reasons I’ve written about previously. For those who are not familiar with the patterns of preaching life, this would be the first year I could actually go back and mine previous sermons and notes to make sermon writing a bit easier; most preachers I know rarely, if ever repeat sermons from the previous cycle. It has been three years since said sermons were written, and one would hope that the preacher ain’t the same, because the congregation sure isn’t. But I know that as I have gotten deeper into my preaching career I have looked at previous sermons I wrote when I was not preaching regularly; sometimes it would hapen by accident: I would go to save a document and realize that I had a sermon from when I was an intern. Generally I just laugh at those, but sometimes there is good historical material contained therein.

But by going to the Narrative Lectionary for Year A, I am committing myself to fresh starts for each sermon. If I were really smart, I’d have all my files tagged and cross referenced so I can call up themes and scripture passages, but all I to say is

Yet, Advent is Advent is Advent. It is the start of a new year. A reset. A fresh set of downs. So earlier this week I opened up my Narrative Lectionary, put on my pince-nez, and ran my finger until I saw it: Daniel 6:6-27.*

I was like, “Daaaaaaaamn, NL. You’re bringing the heat with the First Sunday of Advent.”

The Book of Daniel is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misused texts in all of the Tanakh.** For the duration of my academic training, I was assigned material that situated the Book of Daniel as a text aimed at Antioch IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid leader whose edicts inspire the Maccabean Revolt and led to the Hasmonean Dynasty, but by utilizing language explicitly mentioning a different period of Jewish history. We were taught that the Daniel is an apocalyptic text employing coded language by setting a contemporary manifesto into a story world of the Babylonian Captivity. For nearly a decade, I have taught the history of this period with the assumption that the edict of Cyrus that allows the people to return (and results in Cyrus being called the Christ in Isaiah) was regarded as almost universally positive by the Jews; Persian occupation has been treated by scholars as a largely benign period, until recent exegetes like Smith-Christopher have been challenging these assumptions. While too much to summarize here, I strongly recommend reading his “Daniel: Introduction” in the New Interpreter’s Bibleas it has been enough to convince me that I need to rethink my entire hermeneutic of Daniel. Half of it is written in Aramaic; the other half in Greek. It does not seem to come from a unified time period; it containes clashing theologies. An already complicated text that I thought I had bedded down to be able to teach and preach on has once again become almost unknown to me.

Thanks, NL. Thanks a lot.

The historical setting is key; the framers of the NL have us skipping the opening half-dozen verses of Daniel 6, but such is unwise. They provide us important clues: Daniel is depicted as a one of three presidents overseeing 120 sartraps. Extant historical literature cannot confirm this number, but the political system did exist during the time of the Return; the Book of Daniel itself gives no information as to how Daniel, a Hebrew, was able to secure his position; scholars point out that an edict mandating that all worship none but Darius is not attested to in any extant source, and most historians find its plausibility nil, given the likelihood of the Persian leaders being Zoroastrians. It seems clear that what we have in Daniel is folklore; the question then remains, folklore of what folk and what lore?

To find out what we don’t know, let us look at what we know.

The Aramaic word translated as decree or edict, according to scholars, would have the same cultural understanding as “papers” or “orders.” As in, “Show me your papers, or I have orders to take you in.” In our story world, Darius issues an order that never really happened, but the folkloric detail is setting up a larger issue: Living in a condition of near-slavery is still living in slavery. There are still edicts that come from Man, not God that are life-crushing. Limiting. Oppressive. What scholars once thought was coded language regarding how to live under the brutal slavery of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (the tyrannical leader of the Seleucids who sought to eliminate the Maccabees), may actually be not-so-coded language to occupied Jews about how to not accept the half-slavery of the Persians. If that is true, the Book of Daniel is not some oblique, surreptitious wink written to contemporaries by those opposing Seleucid oppression, but rather evidence of nonviolent resistance during the time of Persian rule written about during the time of the Persian rule.

This seems to be what is indicated in Daniel 6:10-11, in which Daniel flings open his window*** and continues his practice of thrice daily prayer. Historically, this was not a practice required of Jews and seems to have existed only for a brief time amongst Hellenized Jewish communities, that is, communities impacted by Greek culture, such as those now under Persian rule. Again, scholars are divided but we’ll go with the assumption that this is correct. Either way, Daniel is not being targeted because of a practice widespread among Jews, but rather because of one utilized in specific communities. Regardless, his act of prayer is political and defiant.

Darius, when pushed by the other presidents, seems reluctant to seek Daniel’s arrest; Christians will hear echoes of Pilate, but like Pilate, Darius’ true character is more complicated than that attested to in a few lines of scripture. The whole of the Book of Daniel paints a sinister and violent view of the Persians (as well as the Babylonians and Greeks). The message seems clear: resistance is required, no matter how benevolent the foreign rule.

Daniel in the lion’s den is a potent symbol, and has found its way into popular imagination and lore for generations. However, it seems that we might have misunderstood it all along. We tend to think of Daniel being imprisoned, but such punishment was not utilized much, if at all in the ancient world. People may be held for periods of time, but there is no record showing that imprisonment as we use it today was employed in any significant sense. Scholars emphasize the use of the word “pit,” which most often is associated with the underworld or with a condition of being contained. Here, it seems, that Daniel is meant to represent the exiled people themselves. We should notice that the pit is sealed with a stone and the king’s insignia–much like Matthew will describe Christ’s tomb after the crucifixion–but let us not project Jesus onto a text in which he does not appear, lest we miss the symbolism. The people are sealed in a pit by a foreign State power, thrown in with lions that wish to savage them. Yet as a result of innocence and upright character, Daniel–Jewish people living in exile or under occupation–emerge unharmed.

In the story, Darius is very much a sympathetic figure; he fasts, he abstains from pleasures, he feels himself connected to the fate of Daniel. In the morning he runs to the pit and is overjoyed to see Daniel alive; those who plotted against the hero are punished to their deaths, and God is glorified even by the king who was to be worshipped as a god. All’s well that ends well, right?

Except it doesn’t end well. It rarely does. The Darius of the story is not an historical figure; he is depicted as living from the time of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king that destroys Jerusalem in 587/6 BCE, until the time of Cyrus the Persian, something virtually impossible (and if it occurred, where is the extant record?). And this period was not benevolent for the Jews. Why, then, have scholars seemingly been so wrong? In short, because we have believed ancient political propaganda and did not listen to the testimonies of the people. Sure, the theology of the piece is pretty easy: God is good; those that stand against God will ultimately get theirs. But people don’t believe in God because they are stupid; people know that if you are thrown into a pit with lions, chances are you are going to be eaten.

So we must ask: what does it mean to be eaten?

There is not a single or easy answer to this question, and I think too often preachers act as though there is; yes, we can certainly say that there will be edicts that attempt to keep us from worshipping God and if we follow them, we will be eaten by lions. That, in my opinion, is the “persecuted White, American Christian” answer and I am sick of those answers. I think others are as well. Certainly, the story is about how to live in a world hostile to you, but it is not a missive about religious freedom. This is not a tract from the American Enterprise Institute. This is a subversive story aimed at persecuted people; it is a resistance narrative. It is a letter from a Birmingham jail; it is a call to nonviolent resistance. It is a text that says a stronger weapon than the sword is the faithful heart. One quarter slave on your mother’s side is still a slave, and God wants us free, the text says. If you aren’t free, act like you are; refuse to let them enslave that which makes you, you. Here, in the story world, that is devotion to God. That is praying with the window flung open.

We face the same thing in our lives, friends. Sadly, too many Christians see themselves as Daniel and don’t realize that they are Darius, or one of the co-presidents trying to bring Daniel down. I believe strongly that if the Church is to survive the next 100 years, it needs to understand the Book of Daniel as a resistant text. As we start our Advent, we start with the theme of hope. But we also know that these are changing times. We have government leaders who are trying to get us to be grateful because we are “mostly free.” Or that things won’t be as bad for us as it is for them provided we follow the edicts. if we just fulfill the decree, it’ll be okay. Not great, but okay.

Welcome to the new edict: The issue is not praying three times a day with the windows open, it is praying five times a day anywhere.

This Advent, what are we as a Church going to do to extend hope to those who need it the most? While the times may be a’changin’, God’s requirements of God’s people are not. have not.

This Advent, what are we as a Church going to do to extend hope to those who need it the most?

*Actually, none of that happened. The NL is online, I try not to touch the screen of my iMac, and on a round face like mine pince-nez look like glasses that had the stems fat-blasted off them.

**I’m not an expert, I just play one on this blog, so I want to recommend Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third WorldDanieland literally anything by Daniel L. Smith-Christopher.

***The Aramaic text uses the passive voice; the Greek, Ethiopic, and Latin all use active, which I privilege because it fits into my sermon and this is my blog, dang it.

“You Don’t Like Me! You Really Don’t Like Me!” Why I Am Embracing Charges of Divisiveness in Trump’s America

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When I was a young teenager, I voiced my own version of #notallwhites. My mentors and peers of color, most often lovingly but sometimes exasperatedly, directed me toward understanding it is #notaboutyou. Endlessly asking others to assuage my goodness or affirm my nonthreatening whiteness sidetracked discussions. Since I was shown this, I haven’t been able to unsee it. Every now and again, I slip and offer up a more sophisticated version, but the impetus is the same: please affirm to me that I am not racist.

I’m racist. I actively fight against it, but I’m racist because I continue to benefit from systems that are built on a foundation of racist oppression.

In my late teens and early twenties I flirted with what is now called Meninism. I have a horrible memory that haunts me that I might one day write about, but I am still so mortified it is overwhelming. Let’s just say that in college I hijacked a presentation on sexual violence made by fellow female students and demanded that an asterisk be applied to everything they said. #notallmen

Really, this memory plagues me. It causes me to physically shudder and groan. Five years after it happened I was married to a feminist scholar, and while the marriage didn’t last, her impact on me did. #yesallmen is pretty much spot on, at least for me.

I converted to Christianity about 15 years ago and I have often said that I feel part of the ministry laid before me is #notallChristians. I used to think this would arise from saying the right things, making it clear that I decry the sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and other prejudices that too often are present in the Body of Christ. In the past two years I’ve realized that much, much more important than what I say is what I do. I no longer ask people to trust me, I try to show them. To earn their trust. To live my life as though I am a walking safety pin.

I delivered a sermon yesterday that has proved to be controversial, and appears to have caused one person to leave the church. The charges: I was univitational. Divisive. 

I did not sleep much last night. I wrote an email in which I attempted to thread the needle between lamenting that my words caused distress while maintaining that I do not accept that anything I said was outside of the Word. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that over 700 incidents of hateful harassment and violence have occurred since the election of November 8th.  I’ve already blocked white dudes on my Facebook page who continued to argue for “isolated incidents,” or more often: “Emails! Benghazi! Foundation!” I don’t think I have even written Secretary Clinton’s name in a blog or a Facebook post since the election, but even if I have it is in passing or secondary to the larger point. I reject the notion that speaking about acts of violence and racism is in itself an act of violence and racism. My decrying these acts has now become more controversial and problematic than the acts themselves. And I do not want to be part of a Church that acts like our duty is to assuage the feelings of those who want to claim that this past election was like all the others we’ve had since 1864.

But the impetus to be liked is still in me. Part of me wants to apologize and smooth things over so that I am not regarded as controversial. After a rough patch with the Session of the congregation I serve, we had a powerful, transformative meeting on Thursday and I am not eager for more conflict. It would be easier for me to give a mea culpa and to start crafting sermons that are feel-good, milquetoast offerings that sand down the rough edges of God’s word and emphasizes that while we are different in the world we are all the same in the Body of Christ.

Frankly, if I ever do that I hope one of y’all will grab the clerical collar from my neck and tell me to go back to bartending. We don’t need another white male pastor who affirms the status quo. Despite its best efforts, even the European-American Church couldn’t turn Jesus into such a person, so I’m determined not to let it happen to me, either.

Jesus did not come to earth to make us in the dominant culture feel better about ourselves; Jesus came to earth to show us how to lovingly, yet boldly live our lives as ongoing protests against that which suffocates, oppresses, marginalizes, inhibits, and deceives. Jesus taught us that #Samaritanlivesmatter. Jesus taught us to #loveyourenemies, and part of that love is speaking truth to power, even with a shaking voice.

I won’t pretend that this is easy, but my struggles are not what is important here. While I want the Church to always be a welcoming place, if you are looking for a worship experience that confirms your prejudices and doesn’t hold up the Gospel like a mirror, I’m not the right pastor. I try very hard to not castigate people–a point I make repeatedly, despite my detractors never hearing it–but I rail against existential and spiritual realities that devastate people’s lives because that has been God’s call on God’s people for 6,000 years. 

I pray that the person who feels alienated by my sermon accepts my offer to speak in person. I certainly plan to listen, and even if I disagree to make sure that I understand the objections and concerns. This does not mean I will acquiesce. And if I am labeled as divisive, I will embrace that; if speaking out against violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the myriad other hatreds that are occurring across the country makes me more divisive than the actual acts themselves, so be it. I’ll channel my inner Sally Field and proclaim my unlikability.

 

Germany and Jeremiads: SHtF on Christ the King Sunday, Narrative Lectionary Style

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Read this: Jeremiah 36: 1-8, 21-23, 27-38, 31-32

The prophet Jeremiah’s career extends impressively across the extent of the SHtF process. It begins when the S is being collected; it reaches a peak with the S actually HtF; and it concludes with the much splattered S drying and stinking up the joint. Hopefully at this point you understand the acronym; I’d say give it a Google, but I don’t know your security settings.

Jeremiah sees the Babylonians coming; he provides advice on how to deal with it; and he watches as the Temple is destroyed, the king (such as he was) deposed, and the land once again occupied. Jeremiah sees it all, and the book that bears his name is surpassed in length only by the Book of Psalms. It is a book about a devastating time in Israel’s history in which the religion could have died; in fact, what scholars refer to as First Temple or Classical Judaism gives way to the Second Temple period, into which Jesus was born, and that ends in 70 CE. Arising from that is the rabbinical model that defines Judaism today. The Book of Jeremiah allows us to see, almost in real time, how the people dealt theologically with their extreme circumstances.

God has a track record of sending prophetic voices when S is about to HtF. One thinks of Martin Niemoller‘s famous remarks about how we humans have a tendency to shut up if we think it will save us; sadly, it has historically only been a minority of Christians, like Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who have truly understood what Christ did and what we are called to do in our own times, should circumstances dictate. Christ would have died in a concentration camp. Christ would have been beaten in Birmingham. And once again Christ is calling the Church to be prophetic in its witness amidst signs of impending SHtF.

In the year of Jeremiah’s call, 627 BCE, the last of the great Assyrian kings died. The superpower that had decimated the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE was no more, while Egypt was once again in a position of strength and was seeking to ward off the rising Babylonian giant through strategic alliances. In the southern kingdom, and even stretching into the north, there were stirrings of nationalism and feelings that the fall of Assyria was a sign of God’s favor and a changing tide. King Josiah initiated vast and deep religious reforms seeking to cleanse the land and the hearts of the people of any allegiance to paganism or false notions of self. He wedded his religiosity to a nationalistic fervor; any shrines–even those dedicated to YHWH–outside of Jerusalem were pulled down. He sought to centralize religion in a way that it hadn’t been since the time of David and Solomon, and even then, Solomon loved many foreign women and built altars to pagan deities. Biblical evidence seems to show that Josiah’s attempt was both short-lived and rather unsuccessful, but the attempt was strong enough to cause resistance groups to arise.

Josiah died in 609 BCE and the Egyptian king swooped in, killed the son selected by the people to rule, and deposited on the throne another son, Jehoiakim. as a tribute-paying puppet. It is this king we encounter in today’s pericope.

Now those who are not regular and careful readers of Scripture are at a bit of a disadvantage with today’s passage; while there is plenty of action and much to catch one’s attention, the real umph of the story comes with knowing what Jehoiakim is ripping up.

We learn from the selection that Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe and secretary, has written all that Jeremiah has said, from the time of Josiah until the present time. That’s a whole mess of stuff. That’s at least 20 chapters worth of material, and it is not kind, milquetoast stuff. Jeremiah makes it clear that God is gathering up a whole bunch of S and is currently looking for a fan big enough to make huge splatters. The charges are myriad and wife-ranging, from worship of false idols to ignoring the needs of the poor. And in graphic detail Jeremiah lets it be known, screaming and red-faced in the Temple, that God’s vengeance is coming. In fact, Jeremiah claims that God counsels submission to the Babylonians as the only path to redemption. Chapters 27-29 detail why this is the case, and chapters 30-33 contain what is called The Book of Comfort and other assurances of future salvation. First, though, the people must submit to Babylon. It is this that Jehoiakim rips up.

We almost have to feel sorry for Baruch, his secretary, who is sent to the king to read these myriad oracles and damnations; clearly they have been heard before, as that is why Jeremiah is himself banned from the Temple grounds! Speaking truth to power is dangerous work. And Baruch is not speaking to a necessarily eager audience; he is sent on a fast day. People from all around are descending on Jerusalem, and as Baruch reads it word spreads. I encourage people to read the entirety of Jeremiah 36; it is almost cinematic, the descriptions of each subsequent reading taking Baruch, and hence God’s words, closer to the seat of power.

Jehoiakim himself cuts an interesting fiture; he is attempting to no longer be a puppet king, but he vacillates between two different masters. He flips back and forth between the Egyptian and Babylonian kings in order to secure his own rule; he is not respected like his father, and seems to have none of his religiosity. The writer of chapter 36 cuts the king as a devastatingly arrogant figure. We can see him, resplendent in robes that bespeak his facile haughtiness; he sits, perhaps with a leg thrown over the arm of a chair, periodically taking a knife, cutting the papyri scroll, and tossing God’s word into the fire with a flick of the wrist. The disdain pours off the page, and the writer assures the reader that the king will soon meet a brutal and certain fate.

I’ve been living with this story all week, as our own world unfolds around us. White House advisors with White nationalist ties; a national security advisor who is anti-Muslim; and an attorney general nominee who was deemed too racist for a judgeship back in the 1980s, which certainly is not some halcyon period of  racial equality. And I watch as American Evangelicals continue to support these moves in overwhelming numbers, as a vote, in some real capacity, is an endorsement of what the candidate cum office-holder wishes to do. Just do a search engine entry for the name of the president-elect and “agent of God,” and behold a world in which people claim God is now going to rid us of heathens and interlopers. They regard the last 8 years as an ungodly assault on them and their liberty, and look to a new period in which God is raising up warriors to cleanse the land. They foresee a race warThis is real.

I would be lying if I said that I am not afraid. I am afraid. At moments, terrified. I realize that this is how many of my friends of color, Muslims, women, GLBT+, and other marginalized persons feel often; but for me, it is rather new. I’m terrified not because I am worried about what is going to happen to me–to be sure, I wish I could just ignore everything and bury my head in the sand, pretending that incidents of racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic violence is not on the rise, but I can’t because I have given my life to Christ and I know what that means–but rather because of what is going to happen to vulnerable persons while those not yet on the chopping block stand idly by. I’m terrified because I know that there were lots of nice Nazis who did not think they were antisemitic. I am terrified because I know there were a lot of good Christians who just simply did not know what they could do to stop slavery, or Hitler, or Jim Crow.

The truth is, we are all in the Jeremiah story right now. We get to decide who we are going to be. Will we be Jeremiah who talks so much he is banned? Are we Baruch who will go in the stead of those who have gone in first? Will we be the people who hear the word and push it up the chain just waiting to see what will happen? Or will we be the king who rips up the message. Who, in this case, rips up the Gospel.

We as Christian people have decisions to make. I am not interested in vilifying those of our faith who chose differently; I know that I will have plenty of time to talk–or perhaps yell–to them. I am interested in showing solidarity to those who believe we are part of the coalition against them. I believe that one of the most important things to do, if Christianity is to survive and be something relevant and life-altering for people, is to make it clear that we in the Church recognize that Christ is our king. Our sovereign.

I used to really hate language like this; Christ is my shepherd. My king. My savior. It seemed cheap. Hokey. Sanctimonious. A shortcut way to seem deep and connected, only to turn around and be shallow and vitriolic. Christ the King Sunday did not begin until 1925, and it was largely a response to the Catholic Church having lost all of its real power and territory. Pessimistically, one could say that like the doctrine of papal infallibility, it was a desperate attempt to redeem a falling Church, if not in numbers in wealth, in influence and relevance. Protestants should not feel any better; the same thing is happening to us less than 100 years later. But God has used the feast day for good, methinks. Christ the King Sunday, which ends our liturgical year with Advent beginning next Sunday, reminds us that Christ should have domain over our lives. The Living Christ, as Thich Nhat Hahn reminds us; the Living Christ who leads us to wells of compassion and selflessness, especially in service to others. Christ the King Sunday remains us that we should be wary of leaders who rip up God’s word when it makes them uncomfortable. They rip up God’s word when it says that power has oppressed the people; that the widows and the orphans have been subjugated while the rich get healthy and the sick stay poor.

Christ is my king. And my Christ is the Christ of King. The Christ of Bonhoeffer. The Christ that Hahn sees hanging out with Buddha. The Christ that reveals to us that darkness will always find you; but if you nurture God’s light, like the start that guided the astrologers to Jesus’ crib, you will not be overtaken or lose your way. The S might be HtF soon; it really might, and I think that the Church needs to be prophetic in both word and deed. As we see the vulnerable among us being targeted and exposed, we will have a choice to make. Will we burn the scroll, or allow God’s word to burn inside of us?

Safety Pin Safe


When I was coming up, safety pins were all the rage to wear through the ears or all over jackets, like real punk rockers. Safety pins are remarkably difficult to get through an ear, by the way. Even an already pierced one. 

I’m sure most of us have heard about the safty pin campaign, in which a person can identify him- or herself as safe by wearing it in a conspicuous place. This has been ridiculed on one side and embraced on another, with serious criticisms and concerns throughout the pithy middle. The immediate concerns from margianlized persons make sense: it is not enough; wearing a pin to mark yourself as safe doesn’t actually make you safe; this is once again dominant culture determining how oppressed persons should react or act in situations that indicate violence or abuse. I am not linking essays here because there are too many good pieces out there that I don’t want to rank them; they are available for anyone who has mastered the Google. 

I get these concerns and critiques. My words are not meant as a refutation in any way, but rather as a contextualization for why, despite the requests of several friends who  do not think the campaign is worthy of energy, I am continuing to move forward. 

First, the safety pin allowed me to talk to the kids in church about what it means to be an ally. This is not a hip accessory that we can wear to make ourselves look cool and enlightened. It is an external symbol of internal work. What does it mean to be an ally? What kind of privilege do each of us have? What sort of situations might arise? How do we know that we won’t be putting other people in danger? How do we respond when we are outnumbered? Of course, I did not provide answers. I have 3-5 minutes and ages ranging from 5-17 years old. But I left the kids with this: what do we need to do so that we are wearing the pins on the inside? So that our actions will show others that we are safe?

Second, when I see other white persons with the pin I will strike up a conversation. I will seek to find out if they are doing any work in the community; ask what the pin means to them; pose questions about how things are where they live; and cogitate on any other issues as they arise that will help us to network. White persons are often told that we need to have conversations with one another in our own spaces, and this is one way to have that happen; I understand this is not the original intent of the safety pin, but it is one that can be added on. I too am concerned about people who will just put the pin on and then not think about what elese they need or could be doing. The safety pin can be a great starting point for these difficult conversations, and can provide an opportunity to introduce poeple to groups or organizations that will help them in their process of getting woke, as the kids say. 

Third, it is a good way for me as a pastor to discuss fears and concerns that don’t cut across generations. In a multigenerational church, it can sometimes be difficult to communicate the needs and concerns of persons separated by two generations. Something as simple as the safety pin allows a concrete way to initiate talks that can bridge the divide. 

The answer is not to shame on either side. People who object to the safety pins need to be heard and not have their objections swept away; that defeats the whole point of the pin in the first place. How can we offer  ourselves as safe if we don’t listen to the persons to whom we are trying to communicate our safeness? On the other side, though, don’t dismiss the small steps that can help persons travel further down the road of awareness. The pin itself is meaningless unless we attach meaning and action. Let’s give the symbol a chance to define itself through the advocacy work that people like myself and others are doing in this new, terrifying reality many of us are seeing. I get that for many, nothing has changed except more people are talking about reality now, but that does not mitigate the fact that for some people the unabashed hatred is new and overwhelming. I know it can be inconvenient to accept the need for white people to process when there are such pressing needs across the board to make changes for people who have been struggling for lifetimes, but in a tough world it is important to have soft spaces. Supremacy culture is a bitch to undo. It is important to know that you can’t do everything and because you never stop encountering your own prejudice while also dealing with that of those all around us, sometimes you have to give yourself permission to be overwhelmed and confused. 

This is the fact: in order for us to achieve justice, we need to accept that two people may be crying over the same incident for two very different reasons. Both need to be able to express their emotions, to go on their journies, so that they can play their part. The safety pin is a way to facilitate such a journey, at least from my perspective. If it doesn’t work for you, fine. And if you need to express a critique, please do: these are important to hear. But please, for the sake of community and expanding the movement, let’s make room for sojourners on all points of the path. 

 

  

Unacknowledged Uncertainty Exists Amidst Us, Always

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Read Isaiah 6:1-8
Now read Luke 5:8-10

Uncertainty can bring out our true selves. We in the Abrahamic traditions hold a contradictory worldview: we believe that the sovereignty of God exists amidst human free will. Our sacred collection, from the Tanakh to the Christian canon to the Quran, contains tales of God active in a world shaped by human free will; we set forth ideas of divine omnipotence, yet God can be talked out of things. See Abraham and Sodom. We proclaim divine omnipresence, yet God loses track of Abel. We monotheists have uncertainty built into our biblical faith. And it is not just seeming contradictions in our theology. We have countless examples of God’s power being revealed in tales that are too fantastical to tell. Or perhaps, too disturbing. The story of the binding of Isaac would look very different from Isaac’s perspective than it does from Abraham’s, don’t you think? Or from Sarah’s? Why, the Bible reveals that where there is a call for trust, there often is unacknowledged uncertainty.

In our Hebrew Bible text for today, we learn that King Uzziah has died. This line does not mean much to we moderns, but to those who know Jewish history it is telling. It is a line that we might hear as “Tuesday’s election.” You see, King Uzziah had reigned for five decades, with a storied history, including being stricken with leprosy for trying to usurp priestly duties. His full story is found in 2 Chronicles 26, but our point is outside his biography. The death of King Uzziah comes at a time in which the Assyrian giant is eying Jerusalem. The northern kingdom has already fallen, and the uncertainty of the earthly throne, the writers of Isaiah contend, is answered by the eternal kingship of God. Isaiah encountering God on a throne is a powerful image. There is uncertainty below, but above there is no disruption. God is in charge, the text from Isaiah assures us.

Or, to use words I have heard lately, There’s no need to panic; everything is going to work out.  

This is the point at which many of my agnostic and atheist friends begin to roll their eyes, and I get it. It is easy to say that amidst chaos there is order, and all we have to do is convince ourselves that everything happens for a reason. God has a plan.

While I do not wish violence on anyone, including myself, I can understand if someone were to punch me in the face if I said “Everything happens for a reason,” or “It is all part of God’s plan” in response to their fear, their terror, their overwhelming uncertainty about something as basic as the right to physical safety. The right to exist. Unfettered access to the protections of justice despite not being in the dominate culture. The line would be to them a placation, a dismissal, a privilege, a clear sign that their fear is so uncomfortable to me that the only thing I can do is push it aside because considering its reality is an indictment upon me. It would seem like an abdication of responsibility worthy of a pop in the snoot.
 
Why is it sometimes easier to pretend that entire groups of people are being dramatic or hyperbolic than it is to listen to their testimony of pain?

God on the throne seems pretty distance too, pretty odd and esoteric. Not many people are going to respond to a story of winged seraphim flying over to some random dude and putting coal on his lips. It doesn’t seem too relevant now, does it? Coal on the lips might be the ancient world equivalent of collagen but it seems uncertain what it has to do with us.

Isaiah is as much a product of his own times as are we. Isaiah finds himself in the presence of God during an uncertain period. There is chaos on the earthy throne; the north has already fallen; there is fear and uncertainty and people are wondering where God is and Isaiah has God in his sights and yet he cannot approach.

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Think about that. Isaiah cannot approach. Why? Is it because God is too powerful? God is too remote? God is too…

For Isaiah, God is too holy. Too much the other. Isaiah feels unworthy to approach God. He doesn’t know how to situate himself in order to receive the blessings and gifts of God. So God provides Isaiah what he needs: in this case, that is represented by winged creatures that kinda look like us that provide him a cleansing. A tabula rosa. Permission to approach the bench. An elevator to the top floor. Call it what you want, but Isaiah is moving on up to the east side.

Before we can get a piece of that pie, though, there’s a question from God. One all of us must answer. Whom shall we send? God asks.

Here am I, Isaiah answers. Send me. 

I speak often about not searching for fact when God is in the business of truth. The fact is, I don’t know if this happened exactly the way that it is reported; the truth is, I believe the story. Because I know that I have been afraid to approach God this week. I’ve been looking away because I have been uncertain. Uncertain about the future. The messages and personal stories keep piling up one after another; each day seems to provide another spark in our big gunpowder room. I wrote in a previous entry about the shaky first steps after the election, and I seem to vacillate between feeling reasonably certain that things are not going to explode all around us to wondering if there’s anyone in the congregation who has a fallout shelter with enough food for my family of four they’d be willing to let me purchase with witty essays I will pen while we wait for armageddon.

I’ve been turning away from God because I am scared. I know what is required of me. Jesus is very clear, and he showed it by living like he meant everything he said. Even when it cost him his life. That is not a euphemism, but it is isn’t not a euphemism. Gandhi said that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind; Pastor Aaron says a bunch of dead Christians doesn’t do much to bring about the kin-dom of God. We are not all called to the same things. I’ve been afraid because I know that what I am called to do may cause me to be arrested in the future, primarily because I have a big mouth that I won’t shut and I really, really believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am privileged. I am relatively young and in relatively good condition. Yet, I have a mental illness. So that means there are some things I just can’t do; there are things I must discern in order to keep myself healthy and well. I fail at this a lot, but the more I submit to God the better I get.This week, though, I have been wanting to just leave the whole enterprise. Believing in a God that expects things of you is hard.

In order for me to get to Isaiah’s place, I had to start with Peter. I had to throw myself down in front of Jesus. I had to submit myself and say that in the face of uncertainty, I use my free will to chose the will of God. And, wow. Yeah. That sounds crazy; maybe it is crazy. But it keeps me remembering that so many people in the world are not lucky enough to have the choices I have; I can cautiously approach dangerous situations that many people have thrust upon them early and often. I don’t worry about being raped or extorted, kidnapped or tortured because of my faith. My education. It’d be so easy to just shut my eyes and ignore it all.

My faith constantly opens those eyes and screams about what is happening and how I am complicit.

I think we all must face God’s question now. Whom shall we send? Our calls are different. The reasons that we avoid our own versions of the coal on lips are different, but I imagine many of you know that you have them. You have reasons why you might be shying away from what you feel God is revealing. You shy away because it is hard. It is frightening. That’s okay. We need to know that sometimes fear is all we’ve got. We’re not ready to move into action. We’re not ready to seek reconciliation. We”re not ready to hear someone else’s perspective. We see Jesus, but we’re not ready to go foot diving. We are not from a town called hope.

Today, maybe we just acknowledge the uncertainty. Perhaps we give it a nod, let it know we see it in the room. That might be enough, this making introductions.

If what I described does not sound anything like you, I want you to know that it sounds like a lot of people who are not in the pews on Sunday. Fear and uncertainty and confusion is gripping the hearts of people around us; I believe that God is calling us to them. To go to them. To pay attention to the ways in which what we hold in our hearts may be of use to them. Not so that we can grow our membership rolls or increase our tithing, but so that we may live the Gospel. Uncertainty has a way of revealing the character of a person. What’s being uncovered in you?

I Went to Mosque, and I Feel Better About Things

 

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Life since Tuesday.

Seems like a marker that is common for most of us. I have seen multiple references to 11/9 being the new 9/11. Some find that blasphemous. Others outrageous.

In my circle, prescient.

First, there are the accounts we’ve all seen about Day 1 in Trump’s America. Some are claiming false reports; the only one I have seen perhaps legitimately contested was in Minnesota, when the local PD denied ever taking a report such as the one described. I did not follow up and I am more apt to believe the person who reported, but I know people lie and I certainly have no sympathy for anyone who would make up an attack when so many actual attacks are taking place. How do I know?

Because, second, I personally am aware of people who have already been accosted, from an attempted removal of a hijab to questions from strangers about the legal status of a white friend’s biracial, brown children. Customers of a local business reported being run off the road by a semi because of their bumper stickers. There are the acts of vandalism in our village–historic statues spray-painted with pro-Trump, anti-Clinton slurs (although this happened prior to the election itself). Local schools have had incidents; multiple friends have had rainbow flags stolen and hostile letters left on their cars.

I’m a pastor so there are other things I just can’t write about except to say that my inbox is filled with pain, confusion, anger; my clergy colleagues are scrambling to process their own trauma (many of us in ministry are damaged; that’s why we are such good agents of preaching grace, for we know that ish works); I’ve reached out to others, others have reached out to me. We are doing sobriety checks; we’re making sure that we’re getting to our therapy appointments because on Sunday many of us have to go into the most vulnerable place on the planet for a Christian pastor: the pulpit.

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We have to understand that not everyone feels the same way. We have to create a space in which we make sure that pain is honored and that vulnerability is safe, but we have to also acknowledge that what seems like a simple vote to one person is much more complicated for someone else. On all sides. From every perspective. We must remain true to the Gospel but remember that there is enough fear out in the world and we’re in God’s house. God’s house is so important right now, a place of refuge and safety, if only for an hour. To hug a neck. To smile for real, perhaps for the first time in days. To know that it is okay to cry, and you don’t have to explain your tears. The person next to you may be crying for the exact opposite reason as are you, and both of those, in the moment, need to be honored. A lot of people are afraid and we can’t rank the fear. Not now. Not on this Sunday. We have to thread the needle.

This Sunday is going to be the most dangerous day I’ve ever attempted to say words about God.

So I went to the mosque. I had made the decision last Sunday after accompanying adults and youth from the church and village to a local mosque. The service was lovely, and the imam really spoke to my heart. I went back today, accompanied by a newer friend I first met at YS Pride. We’ve started to get to know each other, and the drive there was wonderful as we shared thoughts on this week, on the importance of showing solidarity with our Muslim siblings, and other topics as they arose. Inside the mosque I was overjoyed to see one of the congregants from First Presby. We embraced warmly and let it linger. It felt good to be in a mosque, hugging a fellow Christian, surrounded by smiling Muslims wishing us salam. Peace.

The imam’s message brought tears to my eyes within the first two minutes. “Tuesday was about our failures,” he said. “As Muslims. As Americans. We failed to reach out and let people know the beauty of Islam.” My vision grew blurry as I thought of Isaiah 6:8,  “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!'” I felt inside myself a deep ache. The mosque filled up with men rushing from work, taking a late lunch hour and skipping food for prayer, as Imam Yunus continued. “We must remain steadfast and upright in what we believe, but remember that the Prophet (pbuh) always had a smile on his face. He was the happiest of fellows! Smile at people as an act of salam.” Full tears now. “We will not be afraid because we have done nothing wrong. You have done nothing wrong!” he continued by giving information about whom to call or where to go in the event of a hate crime. 

Imam Yunus gave Quranic instruction about how to live in a hostile land; he reminded people about how difficult Muslims had it in Mecca. In Medina. He extolled the virtues of America. I saw in him my own self-identification. I am proud to belong to God. I am also very aware of how lucky I am to live here, despite the many faults and failings of the country. I absolute reject blind patriotism or expectations that I undergo rituals to show allegiance. My God cautions against that, but that doesn’t mean I am unaware of how much worse it could be for me. My objection is that too often it is my country that is responsible for the living hell of others. And many of those people worship in a mosque.

I make this public with a huge caveat that I hope people will believe. I am searching my soul to make sure that I am doing this for the right reasons, and I hope that I am: I will be attending mosque every Friday (with certain exceptions, as necessitated by life) for the next four years. I primarily do this for selfish reasons: I have no worship life that doesn’t involve me facilitating the service. I need that back, and Friday 1:30-22:20 is perfect for my schedule. Two, this community is so warm, welcoming, hospitable, and inspiring that I feel God  from the parking lot. Three, Imam Yunus is an incredible spiritual leader, and I think I can learn a lot from him. And four, no fewer than a dozen people thanked me for coming. Several told me it meant a great deal to see a pastor in clericals worshipping with them, and asked me to please do come back each week.

Having been to mosque, I somehow feel better about things.

I don’t feel fine. I don’t feel much better. But I feel better enough to want to talk about it. Name it. Thank Allah for it. And to quietly say that I feel like I got some of my sense of direction back. I still have fear. I still know that the circumstances of the world are going to necessitate my making decisions about ministry that will be controversial. I have no delusions that things will go back to how they were; we live in a different world. This is like we’ve been in Dumbledore’s Army and we know Voldemort is back but the Ministry of Magic is saying that everything is fine. This is like the ’60s, but as a nation we’re more armed now. And so are the police. Friends who have never considered owning or shooting guns are going to the gun range. I’ve made very clear my commitment to nonviolence, and that will not change. Period. I believe this stuff I preach. And I will die to honor my convictions: peace, compassion, love, mercy, justice.

I fee like I am going to be okay as long as I can go to mosque on Fridays. I’m not doing this to say, Look at how great I am! I’m going to pray with brown people! I’m a good white Christian, aren’t I? I’m a sinner. Same as yesterday. Same as tomorrow. But I am going to mosque for God’s glory. I’m seeing a side of God I haven’t seen before, and it is making me fall in love all over again. I am going because as the weeks turn into months and, God willing, years, I will develop relationships with the members of this mosque. With this community. And, perhaps, I can be a small part of what is needed to save this country: understanding that we all want the same things, and we need each other to make that happen. With God as our guide, how can we go wrong?

You Get 24 Hours

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My wonderful co-worker and friend, Tina, told me that her grandmother had a specific remedy to heartache: “You get twenty-four hours, and then you gotta get up and move on.”

Certainly not advice that works in every instance, but here I think it is perfect.

I’m afraid. And I’m allowing it today. Trans* friends. Friends of color, particularly Black men. Muslims.  Women, specifically women of color and those who have been subject to sexual violence. Friends with physical and mental disorders or ailments (fill in with any other apt descriptor to encapsulate a condition; I mean no insult with inexact language). All of them. And More. Their posts are filling my FB newsfeed. I’m frantically drinking fluids to keep up with the crying. Marines posting videos with tears streaming down their faces asking what they are going to tell their daughters when they wake up? Queer-identified individuals and couples wondering if their marriages, their adoptions, their investments, their entire lives will soon be dismantled and made illegal. Post after post after post until I’m sobbing and can’t catch my breath.

I’m afraid for them.

I’m afraid for me. I am much less exposed than are others, but as a person with mental illness who relies very heavily on the Affordable Care Act, I am terrified about what is going to happen on January 20th when President…I can’t write it yet. I just can’t write it. What will happen when That Man makes good on his vindictive promises and repeals the ACA? What happens if I have another breakdown? What happens if I can’t get the Beloved Community Project off the ground, if I can’t finally find a job that will give me insurance, if I can’t afford to live in the place where I feel God has called me? What if we become targets, as we are literally surrounded by those who voted for a wholly unqualified person?

I fear for the whole country, not just the half that voted against him. What happens when Der Fuhrer begins targeting the press, and initiates lawsuits against the women who revealed his pattern of violence and abuse? What happens when a tweet sets him off and he sends military personnel into situations because he wants to exact tenfold revenge, as he has already revealed is his modus operandi? This is not a man who is going to rise to the height of the office; nay, he will drag it into the very swamp he promised to drain.

While I do have ultimate faith and comfort in God, and believe me I am going to be praying and reading Scripture a great deal today, that comfort means exactly zero to most of the people around me. I don’t believe that God allows this to happen, just as I don’t believe that God caused this to happen. But now is not the time for theology (I know, right? Who thought I would ever say something so blasphemous?); starting tomorrow, I will most certainly be reflecting on this theologically. I have a congregation to serve; a service to arrange that will help, in some way, process these emotions and to see a loving path forward that includes action and commitment.

My faith is a comfort I can use to get myself back together so I can redouble my efforts to help be part of a positive response to this catastrophic occurrence.

I’ve got 24 hours. Then it is time to stop feeling sorry for myself and get the fuck to work.