Imam Jesus

jesus-and-muhammad

I was raised in a decidedly nonreligious household, and while there was decent religious diversity in the local schools I really did not know the difference between a Hindu and a Buddhist until I went to university and began studying religion seriously. My introduction to Islam came from a gorgeous musclebound lacrosse player at Kalamazoo College, where I started undergrad studies, while he sipped from a 40 oz. of Mickey’s Ice. The first time I heard the shahada, I was drinking Zima and wondering if the guy was gay or if he’d kick my ass if I tried to make a pass at him. He wasn’t and I didn’t. But the claim, “There is no God but God and Mohammad is God’s prophet” will always be tied to that dorm room in Michigan and my crush on a straight boy.

I wish that I could tell you some of my closest friends are Muslim, but I can’t. I certainly have Muslim friends and acquaintances, and I have done multifaith work with Muslims on college campuses and within communities. I have colleagues and former colleagues who are Muslim, and we try to stay in touch with one another to let each other in on what’s happening, events upcoming, challenges, and other information that helps us be of service to one another. But a deep, significant, sustained relationship with a Muslim or a community is something that has yet to occur in my personal life. Some of that is owed to context and circumstances (there is no mosque here in YS, so the village may not be as attractive as say Springfield or Dayton, where there are vibrant Muslim communities), and some of it is owed to the fact that many Muslims feel rightly wary of self-identified Christians. Especially White men. In the main, “my” people have not been so good to the Muslims.

And that sucks. I mean, I know I have a proclivity to be on the “wrong” side of many social issues that rankle Christians. I am pro-choice. I affirm GLBTQ+ persons and their rights to be married in a church if they so desire (would be kinda hypocritical of me not to, seeing that I am queer).  I am critical of the State of Israel for its apartheid-like policies toward Palestinians. So that can put me at odds with people in my own tradition, but don’t get me wrong: I am decidedly and proudly Christian. In terms of theology, I’m somewhat conservative. While I do not believe Jesus is the only way to salvation (however you might define that), Jesus is the only way for me. I confess the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, a rather recent development, but I don’t hang my entire theology upon it and I do not think one needs to take it literally. I reject a blood atonement theology, but I confess the cross as essential to Christ confession. I believe the pastorate is polluted by people who do not undertake the proper training and education, but I am adamantly against the taxation of religious organizations (unless they clearly violate 501 (c)3 regulations).  I believe in original sin, but not as Augustine defines it. And I think that Christians should be able to explain in some detail how they understand the Apostle’s Creed before they are allowed to weigh in on serious theological discussions. So, yeah. I’m also a bit of an ass and an intellectual elitist. There’s an entry fee to play with the adults and too many Christians are infants with no purchase.

Thank God for grace, because I’m a bit full of myself.

But the most important thing–and this actually seems to me to be a conservative position–is to be in relationship with God’s children. Not just the ones like me. Not just Christians or men or White people or progressives. Everyone. And this is the most important thing to me because I take Jesus’s interpretation of the shema literally: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength…

barney.png

“and love your neighbor as yourself.” Like, I can’t make that metaphorical. I can’t turn it into an allegory or use an analogy that gets me out of loving my neighbor, especially my neighbors who are being persecuted and oppressed. So, I’m kinda obligated to do more than just say I support American Muslims. I need to show them I love them.

Here’s what I am doing/going to do. For the next six weeks during the children’s sermon, I am going to be teaching them the Five Pillars of Islam and how they connect or don’t connect to Christian teachings. I have already been in contact with a local imam, and we are going to be hosted by a mosque in September, with a reciprocal hosting by us occurring in October. During the time before our first visit, I will be writing entries in the “Imam Jesus” series that aim to help other Christians educate their kids on Islam and encourage them to develop significant relationships with their Muslim neighbors. These will grow out of the sermons and questions asked by the kids at First Presby.

This is my mantra: Less talk, more work. Less empty sympathy, more significant solidarity. Less ignorance, more knowledge. Less hatred, more love. Inshallah.

 

It’s Not About the Samaritan

good-samaritan

We always focus on the Samaritan. Whenever I preach Luke 10:25-37, I trot out the history of the Samaritans. How some scholars maintain they came to be as the result of the Assyrian destruction of the North c.722 BCE. How they assumed the identity of being the “true” chosen people. How they were vilified and reviled by the Jews of Jesus’ time. How women were thought to be born with perpetual menstruation. How the men oftentimes were not allowed to enter town centers during the day. And then I’ll make some comparison as to who would be a Samaritan today: Osama Bin Laden. Saddam Hussein. ISIS.

And that stuff’s important to know. But until last night, when I suddenly switched the texts for the week to those in the Revised Common Lectionary, I never realized that the parable isn’t about the Samaritan at all. Not really.

Most often, we focus on the violence done to the person lying in the ditch. And we should. Those are the wounds that need tending, the life that needs protecting, the victim who needs attention. Nothing can be done to take back the blows delivered to his body; we can dry the blood and set the bones, but the memories of the act remain.

To decrease the chances something like this happens again, we need to look at the forces that push the robbers into lives of brigandry. We have failed them. Our schools. Our communities. Our churches. Sure, some people choose crime but a vast majority are forced there. Desperation is as desperation does.

We need to look at the violence done to the persons who walked by. The priest who perhaps feels afraid of violating strictures on coming into contact with blood. The Levite who has internalized codes and ideas about purity that keeps him out of relationship. What are the lies they have believed, the indifference they have developed in their minds and hearts, the ways they have somehow dehumanized another person? How is that born? How is that nurtured? How is that developed? We need to look at the institutions and forces that create such a perverse and inhuman life philosophy. Because we know that human nature is to help. Just watch a child respond to human suffering. A child will try to assist, will cry out with empathy.

Remember, God creates us and declares us very good. That is our ontological condition.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not just a story about how we should act, it is a damning indictment of the forces and beliefs that actively keep us from doing the right thing. That keep us complicit in acts of violence, acts of malicious indifference, acts of apathy. The parable is about our own racism, our own prejudices, our own systems that value too many things other than human life. Other than human dignity, security, and happiness.

The parable is about what keeps us from being good.

To be sure, the title of this piece is provocative. The Samaritan is important. I believe the Samaritan presents us with three crucial points for pondering. One, beware of your assumptions. The priest and the Levite are expected to do the right thing, and they do not. I argue because of systems not put in place by them, but ones that they accept even though they violate the will of God that we care for one another. The Samaritan does do the right thing, and we must ask: is this because the Samaritan is a better person? Perhaps. Or perhaps the Samaritan shows us that we can learn lessons from unexpected people. Perhaps the Samaritan shows us that our assumptions about others keep us from seeing the way God is working through them; our prejudices and assumptions prevent us from seeing them as fully human.

Two, the Samaritan shows us the model of someone who does not accept rules and regulations that result in people suffering. The Samaritans largely followed the same Torah as their contemporary Jews (and please note that Samaritans still exist to this day). They were beholden to the same commandments of hospitality and the same laws of ritual cleanliness. This Samaritan put aside those strictures in favor of tending to a life barely holding on.

Three, the Samaritan demonstrates the failures of society to have structures that are life-affirming.What the Samaritan does for the beating victim is wonderful. It is an inspiration for each of us individually. But we also know that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. All of us. Each and every one. So why are there systems and strictures that keep people in lives of crime, in religious systems that alienate, and social systems that do not provide adequate healthcare for everyone simply by virtue of being human? Why do we have a society in which one must risk financial ruin or need to rely on the kindness of strangers–who cannot be expected to help everyone–and continue to make excuses for why it is not different?

The bodies in the ditches are stacking up, and the voices are crying out. Are we simply walking by? Are we regurgitating lies or nonsensical reasons and defenses of indefensible behavior? Do we really think that being pulled over for a taillight should even happen anymore? That playing with a toy gun is a capital crime? Do we start spouting criminal histories that have no bearing on the brutal circumstances of innocent deaths? Do we expect our police officers to follow procedures and practices that leave them afraid and uncertain? Do we defend the system over human life? Human worth? Human dignity?

The parable is not about the fucking Samaritan. It’s about what we’ve gotta do to get woke. God does not care about our doctrine and our dogma. God cares that we do the right thing. Start tearing down everything that keeps that from happening, and begin with yourself.

And remember: Jesus broke himself so we would stop breaking each other.

 

White Rage

For the past few years, the media has been reporting on the anger of White men. And make no mistake, there are plenty of White women who hold the same views; Juan Williams argues that they are even angrier. I’m a White dude and I’m married to a White chick (a term with which she self-identifies), so just based off of our lives on paper (pastor married to someone who runs a small business; massive student loan debt; live in a Republican heavy county), you’d imagine us something like this:

Tea-Party-Rally-2010-J.-Scott-ApplewhiteAP-640x480 Now it is time to play everyone’s favorite game, “Can you spot the spelling and grammatical errors in the signs?”

But of course, we’re not. Neither of us feel caught up in the zeitgeist that is gripping so many who feel that we need to take our country back, who believe President Obama has made the country racistwho believe politically correct culture is weakening our country,or who regard the Black Lives Matter movement as a terrorist organization. In fact, we believe the exact opposite. I’ll stop writing on behalf of my dear wife and just stick to my own ideas, but when it comes to “White” America we’ve got cred. We have White people in our ancestry as far as the eye can see.

I realized pretty early in my life that so-called White men have probably caused more death and destruction than any other “racial” and gender group. I wrote yesterday on the myth of whiteness and how pernicious it is. There comes a time in each White man’s life–at least if he is thinking–when he has to realize that he has been pushed and shoved into a certain identity. Everything around us informs us that we are important, even in the most dire of circumstances. While money is the ultimate divider in this country, race and gender are huge as well. Laws have been codified giving us the “right” to touch and violate women. We are taught that our gaze does not need to be controlled, but rather that women who wear revealing clothes know what they are doing. That they are asking for it. That it is for our benefit. As White men, we are taught that all the “founding fathers” looked like us; that we are the creators  and the innovators and the masters of all we survey. Anyone who tries to challenge that is seeking to usurp what is rightfully ours. Our notions of freedom become such that any slight inconvenience or redress to us is an assault on our God-given liberty. We are taught that our feelings are more important than is the oppression of others; we are fed and many of us believe a narrative that the sins of the past have no bearing on the present. We are encouraged to be defensive and to hear any criticisms of structures that benefit us as a critique of us as persons. As though they are attacks on us individually, and we are provided venues in which those views are repeated, held into the light, and are manipulated by self-serving politicians and religious leaders who tell us that the enemy is everyone who is not like us or refuses to act in ways that we deem acceptable.

So, White men, we should have rage. We should have rage exploding from our every cell because we have been sold a bill of goods. I cannot tell you how much time, reflection, prayer, anger, agony, frustration, and embarrassment I have had to undergo in order to get woke. How many POC had to take time and energy to assist in my education. How much of a waste it has been to mentally dismantle this shit that should not exist in the first place.  Think about this, guys: things could be different. I believe that most of us want everyone to have equal opportunities. Most of us want schools to be better, neighborhoods to be safer, prejudice based on race, sexual orientation, gender, bodily ability, etc to be erased. We’ve been taught to believe that other people want to punish us for the work of our ancestors; that the culture is shifting against us, despite the fact that the country is for us; we not only have to fight against this narrative, we have to change it. We have to continue to educate ourselves about the structures and systems (legal, economic, political, educational, penal) that promote white supremacy, and to work toward either transforming or eradicating them. Our rage should be against not only a system that keeps others oppressed, but also a system that brought us up with such a skewed view of the world. A system that made us racist without our consent, without our volition, without our desire. A system that gives us not only a backpack filled with privileges, but also a backpack filled with toxic shit that destroys lives. It perverts worldviews.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way if we reject. It. Sadly, I don’t see it going away in my lifetime. But maybe within my niece’s. If we do the work. If we take this opportunity, here and now, and rise up against the ugliness that is Donald Trump and talk to one another. The anger many of us feel is from fear. That’s what monied interests want; our continued separation and division makes money. It sells advertising on news shows. It supports toxic publishers who churn out hate-mongers like Ann Coulter. Many of us want to replace this system with something more equitable. And I am not saying that I have all the answers. But what I am saying is that we in the so-called White community have to talk to one another. We have to address the ways in which supremacy culture impacts us. That also means talking to people who have bought in to the lies, but who are reasonable. People who honestly do not harbor hatred or prejudice in their hearts, but who do not understand how racist structures undergird everything in American life.

One privilege we no longer have is the privilege of silence. That’s it. Over. Finished. Each one of us, in our own ways, have to seriously address these facts. Especially those of us who ask communities of color to refrain from violence. We can’t do that if we are not placing our bodies and lives on the line, too. It means going into areas that are hostile to us and holding difficult conversations. It means calling out racist language and behavior in our presences. Silence is complicity. Silence is privilege. Silence is death.

Recovering White Supremacist

Fellow White Dude,

It sucks to be told that you’re racist. Or misogynistic. And at times it seems totally ridiculous and feels like a personal attack. I get how it can seem like people are asking you to be guilty for something you never did, and to apologize for simply being a White man. You might also be surrounded by other White men, maybe your Dad or your grandfather, who are telling you that it used to be different for us. That our way of life is under attack. Maybe not. I’m not here to speculate about you, I’m here to tell you about my own journey and how I came to realize that I was a part of White supremacy culture.

Before we get started let me say that I am not judging you. I’ve been where you are; I’ve felt that I was under attack and that people were expecting me to feel guilty or ashamed of being White. Nobody worth paying attention to thinks that, brother. They just want us to get woke. And that’s why I’m here. Because I went through a process of awakening and I know some of the emotions that arise. I’m here to walk with you, to support you, to help you work out some of the stuff. Because we can’t ask POC to help us with this, at least not with the heavy lifting; they have their own work and education to undergo. We can meet with them further down the line. Until then, we can be really honest about how some of this stuff makes us feel.

Now, let’s deal with this term White supremacist. You probably think of this right away, no?

Klan-in-gainesville

The problem is, too many of us who are White stop here and think that as long as we are not burning crosses we are not White supremacists. That we are not part of White supremacy culture. But we are. This is what acceptable White supremacy looks like:walsh

You may not see it now, and I’ll be honest that it took me years of reading, studying, listening, and getting beyond my own defensiveness to see it. It appears to be a patriotic, tough-talking post that places a value on police lives and is meant to fill with dread those who would assault our public servants, right? But look at the language. Can you imagine what would happen if an African-American member of Congress told a White president to “watch out”? Examine the assumptions embedded in the language: “Real” Americans are not those who would say “Black Lives Matter.” No. Real Americans are ones who go after “thugs,”a label disproportionately applied to non-Whites, even in similar situations. And look at that threat of violence. Real America is coming. Does that mean the military is going to be unleashed on citizens? How will they know the Real Americans? Could it be skin tone?

Ever notice the difference in media coverage for a sports riot and an uprising in response to injustice? That’s White supremacy right there.

How do we get here? Look at what we’re taught from an early age: that the United States began as a way for people to escape religious persecution. We celebrate Thanksgiving Day, and from the time we are 5 we have internalized the ideas that Pilgrims and Indians were great friends, terrible lies that make us resistant to the true narrative. We learn almost nothing of the wholesale slaughter of Native persons. Few of us read A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (click here for full text) until college, if at all. More of us got a brief unit on Native Americans, maybe with a trip to a local site, and then went home to play cowboys and Indians while we wore cardboard mockups of sacred regalia and imitated cries we do not understand. We celebrate Columbus Day, which is cast as Italian pride, despite the incredibly long list of atrocities perpetrated by a man who got lost and “discovered” America much like I “discover” pizza in my neighbor’s fridge.

God knows, most of us don’t do this with malice. Nobody’s saying we do, at least nobody worth listening to. We do it because it is what is modeled, what is accepted. Check this: We grow up being told that America is the land of opportunity, but the issue of slavery is rarely, if ever discussed seriously. The Civil War itself is being redefined in textbooks to teach us that slavery was not a central issue. And we’re told that we should care about this because our white heritage is under attack. But this is a lie: over half of the European immigrants that came over during the colonial period were indentured servants. Freedom and opportunity were for the wealthy. That is how the system was built from day one. Is this what we are supposed to be loyal to?

But lemme ask you, man. What is it that makes us “White”? Skin tone? My wife is White, but her skin is olive hued, to such an extent that she has been mistaken for Asian and Middle Eastern. Her family is from Hungary. My father’s family is from Finland. My mother’s, Ireland. Very different places. Very different customs. Very different histories. And woe unto anyone who calls me a Brit. Nothing against the British. I have good friends who are Brits, but I’m an Irishman, thank you very much. Until I’m Finnish. Until I’m American. What the hell is this “Whiteness” they are talking about?

It is a fiction, broseph. And I know this sounds like conspiracy stuff. But there are entire university departments that study the creation and impact of Whiteness.  It arises around the 17th century as part of the slave trade, but it has devastating impacts on the development of American capitalism and society. The lie of White supremacy was used to manipulate and control poor Whites into accepting their place in society because at least they were better than n*****s. For centuries, the poorest White lady in the county could walk downtown and the wealthiest Black man would have to take off his hat and step off the curb. If he didn’t he would be killed. The most downtrodden White man could get drunk and hang a Black man for fun, and get away with it by telling the police that the man looked at a White woman wrong. I know, it sounds wild and conspiratorial. But money is the root of all evil, and this business of whiteness is a cash cow. Seriously, that link is a mind blower man. And this one will help you see the various ways whiteness has been studied.

This happens by defining personhood within the law. Let’s hope that the American educational system hasn’t totally failed you and you know that only landowning White men were able to vote until 1850, and that African-Americans were counted as 3/5 a person, not so that they could have rights but so taxation and legislative numbers could be figured out. Think about this: the very foundation of our Bill of Rights did not apply to anyone other than land-owning, White men. But not all White men. Not Poles. Not Italians. Not at first. Not until they started to buy into this notion of White supremacy which passed as assimilation. Americanism was code for non-ethnic Whiteness. Look at our television shows. I Love Lucy is an attempt at Leave it To Beaver with a fiery Cuban. Think about it, man: by the time most of us White men hit the age of 18, we have always assumed that we are the norm. Ads and television are geared toward us and disproportionately represent us; women are told to emulate what we like; other races and cultures are measured against us as a beauty standard, whether we want it or not. In terms of social progress and protection, we “White” men have been at the top of the list even when we weren’t. There’s never been an example in the history of the United States in which White men (again, this designate should piss us all off) have gotten a right after a woman or a non-White person. The system was built for us. Kinda. More for us than anyone else, but more for the making of money than anything else.

Here’s what sucks. We benefit from White supremacy. We do. It doesn’t matter if we have Black friends. It does not matter if we listen to rap. It does not matter if we have made love to a Black person. We can see every Spike Lee movie out there and we still are products of White supremacy culture. We are part of a system that enslaved Black bodies and built wealth based upon their uncompensated labor. We live on land that was either stolen or secured through genocide. We live in a culture that regards women’s bodies as sexual objects for our amusement, or baby-making machines that must be regulated by men. Mainly White men. How does that make us complicit? Because we haven’t dismantled the system. We may feel outraged by the odd slight to someone we know, but it is too easy for us to simply shrug our shoulders and say, “Life sucks, but everyone’s got problems.” We’re complicit because we benefit from a system that values “White” names over “ethnic” names.

The truth is, we have to make it a priority to read, study, listen, ask questions, and face some hard truths. Nobody is saying that White people don’t have hard lives; nobody is saying that things are easy for us, or that we’re all rich. What is being said, though, and we should listen, is that we are not persecuted because we are White; we are not denied opportunities because we are White. I’d add men on to this again, but I think that’s another conversation. We’ve got stuff to unpack there.

Look, I know chances are that you like everyone unless they are an asshole. Good policy. I follow that, too. But what we cannot do is say that we see everyone the same so others should adopt that philosophy as well. People of color (POC) don’t have that option. Their race and ethnicity is noticed wherever they go. Further, too often when we say we don’t see color we are saying that we see everyone else like us, and if they don’t fit then they are the problem, not us. Think about it, though. That’s kinda true, isn’t it? As a culture, we tend to remove ethnicity from celebrities, and then criticize them when they speak from their experiences of race. Look at what is happening to Jesse Williams, who is being labeled as both too Black and not Black enough.

White supremacy culture is having millions of African-Americans take to the streets, the airwaves, social media, from all corners of public and private life to speak about how racism and prejudice impact them and having their words twisted into being “racist,” which is impossible without state power; White supremacy is pointing at dead bodies and finding excuses or reasons for why they deserved to be shot and killed. White supremacy is a legal system that rarely prosecutes police for shooting citizens, and even more rarely convicts. Non-Whites are disproportionately impacted. White supremacy culture is hearing people say, “Stop killing us” and responding, “Well…”

So here are the mistakes I made: I tried to convince others that I was not racist by inserting myself into spaces that were designed to help POC process, and turned the conversation into being about me. Unconsciously, I asked them to expend energy into assuring me that I am not a racist. I made the mistake of saying I was color blind, therefore negating the experience and identity of others. I told people I didn’t know very well that I was sorry for the oppression of their people, without knowing their background or story. I asked my friends of color to be my bibliographers and teachers. In some circumstances, this was welcomed and nurtured. In others, it was wholly inappropriate. It took time and energy away from them being able to do the work they needed to do in order to affect change. I used the word nigga. Sigh. Yes. I did. I almost didn’t admit this, but what the hell. If you’re still reading you’ve been indulging me and I want to be clear that I am not judging. Really, I’m not. An honestly, others won’t if you are actively working on dismantling the White supremacy in your mind. Because POC have to do it as well; many of them have to shake off these categories and ideas and literally learn how to love themselves. That’s what Black Power really means. It is about love. Think about the contrast our people offer. White Power. That’s about hate.

Dude, I love you and I hope this helps. The links embedded within are a good starting point. This blog is as well, and for those who are interested I can put together a reading list. I recommend locating a Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) chapter around you. If you can, attend the White Privilege Conference.

In closing, let me say that I love this country. I believe in the basic tenets, that we all are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights. But I want them to be true. To be put into practice. For us to be the country we claim to be, that we are on paper. I want my friends of color to no longer feel fear and unease in their country. Because it is theirs as much as it is ours. We have to be part of the solution that makes this a reality.

Blessings,

Pastor Aaron

Miracle or Co-inky-dink?

miracles

To followers of my FB page, our tax odyssey is well-known. The short of it is this: clergy taxes are difficult and I thought we were facing a bill of over $5,000. On the final review of said taxes, some sort of error was discovered and the bill went down to around $500. Fabulous, right? Wonderful? Worth a celebration, right? But not what we’d call a miracle, agreed? Stuff like this happens. But to claim, God made that happen to reward you for righteouness is asinine. First off, I’m not righteous. Second

A.gif

But check this. Yesterday, we got a refund check from the insurance company for almost exactly the amount we owe. Like, within ten bucks. And, logically, I can know that this is pretty explainable as well: a similar check arrived last year because I was double-charged for insurance when switching plans within the same company. The timing, though. I had to apply for an extension; wait for two different accountants to look over the taxes; and then receive the news within the same 7 day period as the check came in. That’s some pretty wild ish, I don’t care who you are.

I’m not saying what I have experienced is a miracle. I use that term to get your attention. To pull you into the conversation. But I’m not not saying it. What is a miracle, anyway?

A miracle is something unexpected. I understand how someone can look at the series of events I experienced and chalk it up to coincidence. I rationally comprehend that and make no judgment about people who would make such an assessment.

For me, though, I see something beyond randomness and chaos. I see a lesson in patience. I see an affirmation that sacrificing financial benefits so as to be of service, to follow in the example of Christ, to seek out justice, does not necessitate financial ruin. I see yet another evidence-based example for why I believe things will work out well if I continue to do good; I see the wisdom in Jesus beseeching me to consider the lilies of the field.

a1520c57924861afe702d12275faead0

And perhaps I am deluding myself. Perhaps I am constructing a psychological system in which justification for my own decisions is wrought from the experiences in my life, such that I use my life to justify my suppositions and my suppositions to justify my life. Maybe so. But I honestly don’t care. I feel connected to the experience of life; I feel connected to others. I feel that I am able to live–for whatever reason–in a situation such that I have my basic needs met which frees me up to follow Christ as authentically as I know how. I do not know why I have these blessings. I cannot argue my worth over and against someone else’s. And I think it is a waste of time to think on it any longer. I have these specific blessings. The God I serve is not an ATM, but when I refuse to serve Mammon things work out. Somehow. I pray not for these miracles, but for the strength to serve. For the patience to be present. For the opportunity to shine light and love where there are shadows and anguish.

Miracle or coincidence? I don’t know. But believing in miracles makes me look more closely, to listen more attentively, to infuse more things with holiness and intentional energy. I don’t judge the miracles, I simply affirm and acknowledge them even if others see something different. That’s fine. Things are going to be what they are regardless of our opinions.

Making Safe Space Safe: A Tough Call to Make


I don’t recommend taking drugs before going to a viewing. I’m not talking about Valium or a sedative, washed down with a glass of whiskey. I’m talking about the sort of high that makes you forget your own name, pronouncing it over and over again to hear if it ever sounds familiar as you try to remember how to walk. That kinda high. And if you do make this colossal mistake of a decision, don’t select a viewing of a car crash victim. With the sight of her broken hands folded over her abdomen clearly stuffed with something to compensate for the shattered sternum and ribs that punctured her lungs and caused her to die reaching for a cassette tape on the passenger seat floor. Because that corpse will be wearing makeup, even if the person who inhabited the body never wore it, and was particular about what went on her skin. Don’t get ridiculously high and not have enough sense to introduce yourself to the family; don’t approach the casket, gather around with the 6 friends–also high–who are with you, and stare. And gasp. And whisper, “What the fuck” loud enough that someone can hear it. I think. It has been many years. I might have added that detail in the memory, perhaps wanting to act like the affront was the open casket and not the intoxicated twenty somethings bursting into the viewing and leaving within minutes, all without a word to family or friends. Don’t do it because it will haunt you.

In my vocation, I come across death fairly regularly. Expected death. Unexpected death. Slow death. Quick death. Deaths that bring with them relief; deaths that destroy family dynamics to such an extent, the pieces never come back together. Deaths where I have to remain emotionally unattached. Perhaps that’s not an accurate description. One of my spiritual practices is the cultivation of compassion; understanding the experience of mourning without making it about my experience or projecting my own emotional needs upon the family and friends of the deceased. Funerals are not the place to speak empty platitudes, or feign emotions that are not present. For me, serving in times of grief means being able to share the emotional space without placing needs or expectations on others; to allow myself to respond to their processing while being present in the moment. Mourning does not happen on a schedule; fretting about the future or what comes tomorrow can fill a person with dread and anxiety. Sometimes we need to be given permission to live in the moment, to surrender to the seemingly overwhelming emotions, to allow them to overtake us and wring us dry. 

I have a funeral tomorrow. One which takes place within the sanctuary of First Presbyterian, but one over which I will not preside. I am reading one prayer, and sitting with the family. By their request. The presiding pastor is theologically my opposite. He was once president of a local college known for its conservative Christianity. And while I would be loathe to surrender my pulpit or to allow for a wedding to take place as officiated by a conservative pastor, a funeral is different. Burying  the dead is one of the most ancient things we do as human beings. It is at the heart of Christianity. So why would I insert myself into a process that is central to my faith tradition just because I have theological and social views that are different from the pastor requested by the deceased? To me, that would be unChristian. 

I write this not to congratulate myself, but to be transparent. I have been very public about saying that First Presbyterian Church is a safe space for GLBT persons. While I do not know the presiding pastor personally, it is safe to assume that someone who served as president of that college locals know I’m talking about will have rather strident and stringent anti-GLBT+ views. I will not allow pastors who are against same-gender marriage to perform weddings in the sanctuary. But in the case of a funeral, I think that my duty is to be hospitable, loving,  and supportive for the family. The members of the family have been attending worship the past two Sundays, and have asked that I sit with them. This is a great honor for me, and I believe that God is calling me to prove that I will not let personal feelings prevent me from serving others in the name of Jesus Christ. I am not called to preside over this funeral, but rather to pastor. 

I feel a bit torn, though. I know I am doing what my heart tells me to do and what I believe is God’s calling, but I also know how important it is to have a consistently safe space. And I have very publicly declared FPCYS a safe space. I hope that my quandary is more owed to my own assumptions, and that there will be little to no evidence of anything that would indicate that my fears are well-placed. But I know how fervent this school has been in silencing and oppressing GLBT+ persons, both on and off campus. I also know some incredible people who earned their degrees from there, including one who is queer and is also a pastor. So this situation might be an opportunity for me to further unpack my assumptions and prejudices. I’m thinking about safe space, though, and what is required; the ways in which a safe space needs to be versatile, to encompass all those who approach and ask for refuge. For hospitality. For service. For the presence of Christ.  

God of comfort, hear my prayer. 

     

Looking for a Job: A Sermon Series

jobc10

Week One: Jules Winnfield, Dick York, and Buddha Walk into a Bar

William James, in his seminal work The Varieties of Religious Experience, argues that all of religion has as its basis a need to understand death. We humans have tried to control death, forestall death, inflict death, commodify death. We have imagined it as an end, a birth, a portal, an illusion, a mystery, a rite. We organize space and time in relationship to it, as it pertains to others, to ourselves, to our species, to all of creation. It is the constant that drives us all, in some fashion, to do the things we do, to believe the contents of our faiths: that there can be a victory over that which alters everything in its path.

The ancient Jews had a much different relationship to death than did most other religions of which we know much; Hinduism and Buddhism are contingent upon the cessation of samsara, the seemingly endless cycle of birth, life, death, decay; Hinduism offers moksha or release from samsara through the realization that Atman, the true self, is part of Brahman, the source of all things: God. The Atman therefore reunited with God, samsara ceases. Buddhism rejects the notion of atman for annatta, no soul or no-self. Moksha (release) occurs when one sheds the false ego, traverses the dharma river, and encounters nirvana. One then escapes the power of death. To be sure, these overly-simplified descriptions forgo nuance in the pursuit of expediency, but the overall point holds: both systems seek to overcome death in some way.

The Jews were different. They were much more focused on how to live here. Now. How to craft and form a society that was governed by laws, by proscribed roles and duties willed by a God who protected them, disciplined them, loved them, and was furiously disappointed with them. For the Hebrew people, faith was a tool toward living a life in which one would be healthy, blessed with a family, have land handed down from previous generations, and would know a trade or skill that helped define one’s personal and public identity. From Classical Judaism, generally defined as the period before the First Temple period (c. 922-586 BCE) to approximately mid-way into the Second Temple period (c.527 BCE-70 CE), the only concept of an after life was connected to Sheol, a nebulous underworld similar to that protected by Hades (which eventually becomes the name of the place, in no small part because the Septuagint–the LXX, or Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible–renders the Hebrew sheol as Hades). Sheol is used often in the Psalms; see, for example, Psalm 88, the only psalm in the psalter to not contain a doxology; the narrator begins in the Pit and ends in the Pit. In sheol. In despair. Death just wasn’t a major preoccupation for the Hebrews.

So our Christian notions of heaven and hell have more to do with Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Greek polytheism, Dante, and Milton than they do with Judaism. But that doesn’t mean we should not examine more closely Jewish ideas relating to death. However, attitudes toward life and death begin to shift after the split between Judah and Israel (c. 922 BCE) and the writing of the Book of Daniel (c. third century BCE), which features notions of a coming judgment based upon the actions taken in this world. And I believe, in many ways, we can see the beginning of that conversation unfold in the Book of Job.

Next week I will provide an overview of Job’s structure, various scholarly theories regarding its compilation and purpose, and we will examine the theologies embedded in the narrative. But for now, it is important to point out that the Book of Job seems to be a response to a theology that had been central to the survival of the faith amidst continued, violent repression: the Theology of Retribution. One can see examples of this throughout what scholars call the Deuteronomistic History, in which the people turn to other gods; Hashem delivers the people into the hands of an enemy; the people repent and cry out; God sends a shofet (judge) or a prophet; all is well until the judge dies, and the people slide back into apostasy. This corporate understanding of how God works translated to individual lives and cultural mores. People who were stricken with illnesses or skin conditions were regarded as sinful, as deserving of their condition. While to some extent the wealthy believed they were rewarded because of their own virtue, much more prevalent was the belief that one was rewarded because of the virtues of one’s ancestors. Filial piety is a major concern of the Scriptures, even if expected adherence to primogeniture is often challenged (think of how many times the younger brother is favored in the Bible). Sin and status are intimately connected.

And Job challenges this relationship. Consider Job, God brags. The pinnacle of my beautiful creation, no ? God tauntingly offers to Satan. Of course he is! the Adversary retorts. You’ve given him everything. Take it away, and see what happens! So we’re left with a question. A quandary. Is Job rewarded because he is religious? Or is Job religious because he is rewarded? Now we turn the questioning upon ourselves. What are our expectations of God? What is the purpose of our investment? Wealth? Health? Love? What does God offer? What does God expect?

The Book of Job is an indictment on the expectation for justice. The sense that one is deserving of anything. And reading Job now, with what is going on in this country, we must ask: can a system that was never designed to protect and serve non-whites and women ever be sufficiently reformed to provide equal justice? We do we mean when we say the word justice? I know from experience that my friends of color often answer that question with a much different perspective than do I. So do we believe in a uniform, unchanging justice? Do justice and compassion have a relationship? If so, how? What impacts that relationship? Is it the same for everyone? The questions seem endless.

The Book of Job challenges us to confront a God who is so insecure that Satan is able to goad, cajole, one could even say manipulate, to such an extent that Job’s children are slaughtered as a test of faith. A God, who at the end of the story, blithely replaces Job’s family, not through resurrection, but through a new cast of characters. It’s like Dick Sargeant replacing Dick York all over again, and nobody’s supposed to notice? Come on, God!

Are we confronted with a text that shows we of the Abrahamic faiths worship a capricious and even vindictive God? Or might there be something else here? Something bubbling under the surface, beckoning us to investigate, to lay bare our assumptions, and to confront fundamental questions in new ways? With new eyes? Over the next five weekly installments, will be sit on the dung heap with Job and listen. And then, in the words of Jules Winnfield, we’ll say, “Well allow me to retort!”