Fragile While White

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Let’s begin with the assumption that White fragility is real because it is. I’ve displayed it, given into it, defended it, all on the path toward recognizing it in me and in others. I have derailed conversations into being about placating my hurt feelings; I have unknowingly privileged myself in spaces meant to counteract cultural privilege; I have co-opted the experiences of others in order to spit racial malapropisms with righteous indignation; I have shown up to protests and tried to insert myself despite not having been part of the planning. I have had some hard, sometimes harsh truths spoken to me and reacted badly. Getting woke is a journey, yo. Keep showing up and keep learning. That’s my mantra.

The first step toward better allyship for me was disengaging my personal emotions from critiques of systems. I stopped hearing “White people” as “Aaron Maurice Saari.”That meant disentangling myself from the false sense of allegiance society had made me form with my “whiteness.”See above about getting woke. I still feel pangs of discomfort sometimes, but I have learned that it is inappropriate to voice those discomforts in spaces designed to refute the damage of white supremacy. Biting my tongue helps me hear more and speak less. That’s another mantra.

The second step was understanding that there are some spaces in which my presence will be a detriment or a detraction because I am a White man. Yes, it sucks. No, I don’t like it. But I get it. And my dislike of this is not important. People of color are not responsible for making me feel comfortable about their needing space and time in ways they determine. Our response as White people cannot and should not be to decry these spaces and efforts, but rather to work on dismantling the systems that necessitate such spaces. If we don’t like it, let’s create a country in which it is not necessary. Until then, we need to step back and follow the lead of those who suffer the oppression and fear rather than trying to tell them how to react to their trauma. Another mantra: not my trauma, not my timetable.

My third step was shifting the onus of education from persons of color to myself. When I was younger and just beginning to come into my activist identity, I asked a lot of questions of my friends of color in very appropriate ways because we were already incredibly close. One of my dearest friends is Native and Latina, and her work and witness has been an incredible inspiration to me. Half Pint (as we lovingly call her) has been a strong force of education in my life, and also a collaborator on justice work. My mistake was translating that relationship into one I can have with any person of color. I unintentionally asked others to be my bibliography or to educate me at times in which they were focused on other things. Half Pint helped educate me as a friend and as an organic part of our relationship; I blurred the friendship and advocacy line with a couple people in which it was inappropriate to do so. It happens, but when we recognize it we should seek to stop it from happening again. Another mantra: you will make mistakes.

The fourth step was to let go of guilt. Seriously. Most people worth listening to are not interested in guilt. But this also means rejecting narratives that seem to be aimed primarily at creating and stoking guilt. I am a person who lives with bipolar disorder. I am a person who has always been deeply emotional; while I have learned to live with conflict and holy tension (the notion that two persons can hold disparate views but maintain a loving relationship, generally with a belief that this is what God calls us to do), words can cut me deeply. I certainly understand that my education is ongoing, and that being woke doesn’t mean I am not complicit in racism. Final mantra: guilt is garbage.

This brings me to a point that may be hard for some non-Whites to hear, but I need to be honest about my lines and to encourage other Whites to do the same. I will not be called a rapist. I will not be told I engaged in genocide. I will not accept the idea that whiteness is a construct that needs to be torn down, but not before said construct is used to minimize and ridicule me for the sins of people to whom I have no connection other than the fact that I am “White.” Am I part of the system?  Yes. Did I go into slave quarters and rape women? No. I didn’t. And saying that I and others did then claiming White fragility when I object will not fly. We aim to grind systems into the dirt, not people.

Granted, these experiences most often arise online any more but they are there. They need to be addressed. Part of dealing with the issue of White fragility is curbing angry, loaded, prejudiced statements on all sides. Dealing with White fragility is understanding that the answer is not expecting people to be completely devoid of emotions or reactions when unproductive things are said. The answer IS calling out false accusations of White fragility.

For Whites, we each need to take responsibility for our own education and seek to help other Whites understand privilege and supremacy culture. What we don’t have to accept are vitriolic, charged statements that reduce people. We get to be experts on what it means to be White in our own contexts, and the ways in which we are able to affect change. I have White friends and colleagues who hold pulpits in Klan country. People who are trying to transition entire communities that have deep, significant ties to entrenched racist culture and structures. We have to trust them to know best how to be a force for change without unduly alienating him- or herself from the community, and thereby losing a place of authority or respect. Sorry, but a 22 year old African-American activist from Detroit is not going to understand how a 47 year old woman from the hills of Georgia should handle teaching her all White congregation about white supremacy culture.

It is important to say that when our feelings get hurt it is not always White fragility. And saying that it is does nothing to help advance true dialogue and understanding. It is important to say that we all are intersectional; we all come with both baggage and experience, ignorance and wisdom. It is important to say that a movement toward transformation cannot be based upon one group always being told what to do and how to do it. Certainly, White persons (as I noted above) have work to do as individuals, and I am doing what I can to help facilitate that, but I urge non-Whites to be pointed and careful with the charges of White fragility. I am seeing it used to diminish and dismiss the legitimate feelings of others.

I’m going to remain fragile. Because I am broken. We all are; we all have fissures and cracks. We all want our heads stroked and to be told that it is okay, even when we know that it is not. My fragility is wedded to my compassion and my sense of justice. My fragility is born of lament. Of pain. What I won’t do, though, is bring my fragility into discussions and spaces where it is not playing a role. I will continuously check myself, analyze my behavior, be aware of my body, of the loudness of my voice, of the ways in which I comport myself, especially in spaces where I am a guest or there simply to show support.

I think a vital necessity of the movement that is happening now is that we remember no one is an expert on someone else’s life and experiences. We have complicated, multifaceted factors that shape people’s lives, from race and gender to religion and sexuality; from bodily ability to mental health; from environment to education. Many of us had little to no control over many of these for our formative years. We are now witnessing extraordinary events that require multiple generations to work together. A times, I see incredible hubris from Millennials and regretful patronizing from Boomers and Xers. But I also see collaboration and cooperation, a resistance to that which seeks to divide us. I have much more hope than I do pessimism.

As always, I write this out of love and a desire to make the world a better place. And I might be wrong about a few things. Chances are, I’m wrong about a lot. But I think I am right about some things, too. And this fragile person is doing everything he can to remain strong. Let’s all help one another in that journey.

It’s Not About the Samaritan

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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.

 

Miracle or Co-inky-dink?

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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

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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.

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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. 

     

Consolidated Forgiveness


I have lots of student loan debt. I’m an Xer, so that is not a surprise. Our generation has the distinct honor of being the first to face total financial ruin because of how much it costs to go to school and gain certifications. Millennials seem to just assume that their lives will be defined by debt. It is a brave new world. 

Periodically, I get letters about consolidating loans or even applying for loan forgiveness. The language of this is striking. Consolidating our debts; seeking out ways of forgiveness. I don’t know if Great Lakes is in the business of sparking theological thought, but they did with me. 

I have decided to move to the Narrative Lectionary, and the summer begins with a six-week series on 2 Corinthians. For any Trump supporters who might read this, it’s pronounced second Corinthians. The opening chapter is about consolation.  Paul is dealing with a complicated relationship with the church in Corinth. The last time he was there, a member said something that really pissed him off. The congregation disciplined him, but when Paul canceled a trip to return it appears that all hell broke loose. Scholars have spent a long time trying to piece together the myriad letters (and allusion to letters) that are contained in 2 Corinthians, which is actually the fourth letter that Paul wrote to Corinth. He writes because of a previous letter. WHich was harsh. Very harsh. And people did not receive it well. I know how that goes.  To address it, Paul begins by essentially saying, I know that there are hurt feelings. And I know that I played a role in that. Paul offers words of consolation, not necessarily of apology.  He thanks God for God’s comfort. 

Consolation is different from forgiveness. Consolation is tending to a person’s emotions, trying to soothe and assure them that distress is temporary. No matter how devastating the blow, time will lessen the acuteness of pain. I hesitate to use a word such as recover, so perhaps adjust is better. Consolation is the promise that circumstances will once again change, and things will adjust. 

Forgiveness is investing oneself in the process of adjustment, either as the person who receives it or as the one who administers it. Forgiveness means taking responsibility for your actions, and owning your mistakes; forgiveness means working through your pain and recommitting to a relationship with a person who has hurt you. 

Sometimes we make the mistake of asking for forgiveness when we should be in the process of consoling. Sometimes the person seeking forgiveness needs consolation, too, even if the aggrieved are not ready to extend absolution.  Sometimes we can be so blinded by our own pain that we do not recognize the pain we are causing to others. Acknowledging that yours is not the only pain can go a long way in repairing relationships. 

Today, I set for myself a prayer project. I do these every now and again. I am praying on knowing how to separate who I am as a pastor and who I am as a follower of Jesus Christ. This may seem odd, but I am learning that it is vital if I am to be effective as a minister. To be fulfilled as a Christian. And as I was praying and reflecting, I realized that I need to be able to console even if I am not forgiven. Even if I have not forgiven. Consolation is essential to relationships and community. Consolation allows us to step outside of ourselves and even to gain perspective. God consoles us before God forgives us. Because the journey is the destination. . 

I think I sometimes seek consolidated forgiveness. I want to stack up all my sins and put them in a package, setting them before God–before others?–and say, “Here. Forgive this, please!”  Paul, in his letter, lets know that there needs to be some pain before forgiveness. God will console, and we should as well, but forgiveness without full investment in the process is not a forgiveness that will feel complete or livable. If we are too quick to forgive, or too quick to seek forgiveness, we might just be setting ourselves up for continued strife. Regardless, we should aim not to hurt people’s feelings purposefully, and remember that despite continued tensions, we still care for one another. We are still able to console.

Today, I am thankful for God’s consolation in the midst of being unforgiven. Unforgiving. Today I am thankful for the friends and colleagues who have reached out to console, to forgive, to express solidarity. I am thankful to the people who reached out to me for ministry help, still trusting me to be of service to them and providing the opportunity to offer consolation myself. Today I am thankful for a person who so powerfully empathized with me that she took on physical pain. 

All things in love, love in all things.    

Blessing Zay

In case you don’t know her, this is Zay. Click here for a short film The Cincinnati Enquirer did on her and the family last year. Knowing her story is pretty important to understanding this blog.

I met Zay when she still went by her birth name and responded to male pronouns. She was full of energy and in the cast of The Three Penny Opera, a show that also featured my wife. I thought that it was really cool that her parents supported a gender-fluid child. Over the coming months I–like many of us lucky enough to be in her life–understood that Zay is a girl. She is not a boy who likes to wear dresses; she is not confused or experimenting or trying to be cool. She is trying to survive. She is trying to be who she knows herself to be.

There are not many people I will say I admire; respect? Yes. Love? Yes? Appreciate? Yes. But admire? That’s a high bar. Zay’s parents, Chass and Jason, are two people I admire. Because as hard as it was for Zay to give voice to herself, it was equally hard for them to understand what was going on, what they needed to do, and how they could go about doing it. I have marveled at their tenacious dedication to let love and compassion overpower fear and uncertainty. Having held the hands of trans* persons as they recounted horrific tales of unspeakable violence by their own family members, I know (as well as a cisgender person can) how incredibly important family support is when coming out and transitioning, and how lucky Zay is to be facilitating transition as she goes through puberty. This community is not unfamiliar with trans* persons; we already helped produce the inimitable Trace Lysett (although I speak with no authority on Trace’s transition or experiences), but we are by no means a perfect community. There is trans* phobia here, and transitioning can be rough. Zay’s parents have done an incredible thing for their daughter, while all the while mourning the loss of a son. It is a tough dynamic.

I’ve been on the organizing committee for Yellow Springs Pride for the past several years, and that is really how I go to know Zay and Chass the best. The year I was the featured speaker, Zay was crowned Pride Queen. She led the parade and the village rallied around her. I’ll be honest and say that I only ever see Zay smiling, but I know there have been difficult times. I know that being who she is takes a toll on her, on her family, on the dynamics they face each day. I wish it were different, but it is not. As wonderfully supportive as family and friends are, fear and uncertainty make people behave badly and there is no avoiding it. That’s why days like today are so important.

I was asked several weeks ago to put together a blessing service for Zay on the day that her name becomes legal. Friends and family gathered at the county courthouse before packing into a small courtroom to witness the historic event. The guards, court officials, and magistrate were lovely. Absolutely lovely. They recognized this as a huge event and were nothing but cheerful, enthusiastic, and helpful. As nonbinary people continued to join our ranks, there was no snide remarks, no persons pointing, no untoward questions about genitals. It was an amazing moment when the magistrate declared that “Zay Irene Crawford” is now one step closer to being her legal name recognized on all documents. We clapped and cheered and laughed and hugged and cried. It was beautiful.

After, we gathered together at a local park to break bread and share stories. Zay flitted around and fed the ducks, danced, and greeted her admirers. It came time for me to give the blessing, which I did–and you can read it below–while trying not to cry. Zay stood next to me as everyone encircled us, a physical representation of our spiritual commitment to surround Zay with love all of her days.

In many Christian denominations, I would be defrocked for what I did today. The fact that I am so open about my support of the GLBT community–a community to which I belong–means that many churches and many Christians won’t have me as a member or as a pastor. But I feel that today I followed Christ in one of the most significant acts I could do: affirming the idea that Zay is not an abomination, not an affront to God, not a boy who thinks he is a girl, but rather a wonderfully made, radically loved miracle. I was able to be a vehicle to communicate God’s love and compassion, to express that God’s wondrous creation is so much more intricate and beautiful than the binary spectrum reflects.

This, friends. This is why I went to seminary. This is why I seek to serve. I am invited into the most powerful, intimate moments of people’s lives as a symbol of God’s presence, as a reminder of our undeniable connection to one another. I may have delivered the blessing today, but Zay IS the blessing.

The Ceremony 

William Shakespeare famously queried, “What’s in a name?” The ancients believed a lot. Abram, the founder of the three great monotheistic faiths, became Abraham as a testimony of his transformation; Sarai, his beloved and the matriarch, became Sarah. Millennia later, a passionate Jew named Saul was so overcome with a sense of God, be changed his name to Paul and helped bring forth a new revelation. Around the world, Jews and Christians take religious names at bar and bat mitzvahs, christenings and confirmations. Our Muslim brothers and sisters are named in honor of their prophet and revered figures. What’s in a name, indeed.

Names are highly symbolic within the vast variety of Native American tribes and nations. The blood of Native ancestors runs through Zay’s veins, and while today is not an official naming ceremony in a Native tradition, the spirit of such a hallmark event is present in this moment. Zay—in ways that most of us cannot imagine at her age—understands central aspects of herself, an understanding that transcends years on earth. She has a deep, intrinsic knowledge of who she is, and she has spent most of her life explaining that to others. In her bones, in her body, in her mind, in her soul, and in her heart Zay Irene Crawford understands that she is a young woman meant to grow more fully into her identity. Today, we recognize that; we recognize her strength and beauty as a child of God.

I now ask that Zay’s family come forward. Please repeat after me.

On this special day, we surround you with love. We affirm who you are, and embrace you on your journey. We will walk in solidarity as you continue your path, and we pledge our unwavering support. In this family, you are a daughter, a sister, a niece, a granddaughter, a beloved of our own. As long as we are with you, you will never be alone.

Zay, please repeat after me.

I, Zay Irene Crawford, do proclaim that this is my name. It identifies who I am called to be. I take the name of my grandmother, Irene, which means “peace,” and the name of my family. I am to you a daughter and a sister, niece and granddaughter, and you are beloved to me. As long as you are with me, I will never be alone. 

In every tradition, a community gathers around a new name. A community that pledges to love, to seek justice, to extend compassion, and to be present in the wonders and mysteries of life. Will those present who feel so moved, affirm their continued support of Zay and her family by repeating after me: As long as you are together, we will be here.

In the Love of the Creator, the Source of All Things, the Unnamable Spirit, we lift up our hearts and present to the world, Zay Irene Crawford.

What If They’re Right? A Progressive Pastor’s Fears Laid Bare

firstpresby

I was not raised in the Church. I came to faith via a long and winding road and a tremendous amount of study. Like most highly educated pastors, I have thought through my theology. Deeply. And I do not separate my faith from any area of my life. It is all-encompassing. Grace is a wonderful thing, as I am broken. Wonderfully made and radically love, yes, but broken nonetheless.

I have made decisions about my understanding of community. I can give biblical justifications for why I support women’s ordination, the full inclusion of GLBT persons into community and religious life, and do not think that Jesus is the only way to God. Some fundamentalists stick around to hear my explanations, some do not. Some are fine with agreeing to disagree, and finding areas in which we have crossover to use that shared belief to propel us into relationship and meaningful collaboration to do God’s work. Some refuse to acknowledge my ordination and believe that I am leading a congregation to hell. In fact, the two denominations with whom I am intimately tied, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are two of the most liberal denominations. Add onto that the fact that the congregation I serve aligns with the More Light Presbyterian movement, and I am about as “Progressive” (meant in the categorical sense) a Christian as you can get.

To me, though, the most important word in that descriptor is Christian. I take the gospel seriously. I emphasize the things I believe Jesus told us humans to emphasize: compassion, justice, mercy, solidarity, and love. I leave to God the task of judgment and the state of a person’s soul. I take the bible seriously, but not necessarily literally. I have deep, abiding respect for the long tradition of our faith, but I think there have been many, many mistakes. I find that too often I have to spend a lot of time explaining those mistakes to people who are not necessarily resistant to the view of God my faith espouses, but who are so damaged, so wary, so weary of the Christianity that judges and casts stones, they are hesitant to even think about trying church.

But here’s the rub. Mainline, liberal congregations across the country are struggling. There are myriad reasons for this and if you want to learn more, just pick up any issue of The Christian Century from the past ten years and you are likely to find at least one article about it. Our detractors say it is because we have polluted the gospel. We have acceded to the culture and abandoned Christ. I have written many times about my view of the gospel and I feel absolutely fine claiming that I follow Jesus. However, non-denominational mega churches, which often have a blood atonement theology, a charismatic preacher at the helm who dispenses advice masked as scripture, and a financial statement that can rival those of entire denominations, are thriving. Growth may be slowing down, but the communities are sticking. People are leaving traditional denominations and are going to these churches. For years, we educated and discerning Christians (to our own minds) joked that offering designer coffee and house bands would not be enough to keep people. We misjudged what it was that sent people to churches such as these. The truth is, non-denominational mega churches might be the future of Protestant Christianity. And while they are not for me, for a wide variety of reasons, I am not interested in badmouthing another part of the Body of Christ. Not for addressing what certain people want and need. I know I couldn’t do it, but I don’t deny that there is serious commitment to Christ that emerges in these communities. I don’t agree with their vision of Christ, oftentimes, but the discipleship is real. That’s important.

So, here’s the deal. All the people who said that they’d come back to church if denominations were open to the GLBT community; people who said they would be part of a thinking church, a church that allows for questions; people who said that they want to be able to be in a space where their experiences and even admiration of other religious traditions would be respected; all of those people who motivated so many of us to push within our denominations, to be vocal and visible in social justice fights, we need you. Now. We need you in order to help congregations that are aging, that are struggling financially because they are trying to upkeep ancient buildings. We need you–even if you don’t come to worship proper–to offer to work with us, to help us staff committees, throw community events, create spiritual spaces that are utilized and respected.

Because we could die. And maybe that needs to happen. Maybe our vision of the Gospel is not correct. I reject that claim with every fiber of my being, but I need people to understand the stakes. I have so many passionate, talented, spirit-filled friends who went to seminary, accrued major debt, and are tasked with leading aging and financially-challenged communities and we’re frightened about what we face. Most of us will never be full-time pastors.  For me, the fear is not monetary; it is the prospect that a community that has been continuous since 1860, that has pushed the boundaries and been vital to village life, might end. On my watch. It would be a loss, not just to the Church but to the community as well. I imagine that many of you reading this who do not live in Yellow Springs probably have a few churches in your area that fit this description.

This will be my last doom and gloom blog. I am focused on solutions. I am focused on community. But I wanted to be clear about what drives and motivates me, and what is at stake. I’m looking to try new things and to gather people together in ways that are authentic and meaningful, but also in line with the gospel that is at the center of my heart, sinner that I am.