Faith Without Works is Dead(ly)

James 2

"My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that God has promised to those who love God? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” …What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead…For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead."

In 2015 I had the opportunity to spend a week traveling the Southern United States on a civil rights pilgrimage. We toured museums and we heard first-hand accounts and we sang freedom songs and we wrestled with the brutal realities of racism. The trip was equal parts empowering and devastating, exhilarating and haunting. You cannot cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge or stand behind Dr. King’s pulpit or hear the compelling words of Malcolm X where they were first spoken and not feel the spirit of the very people whose lives were given in pursuit of justice.

I felt them with me as I stood in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This museum is situated directly between two sites of violence and terror: on the one side is the town square where children were tortured with water hoses and chased by dogs during their non-violent march in 1963, and on the other side the 16th Street Baptist Church where four precious young girls were murdered by a white supremacist several months later. I felt their spirits too as I walked through this museum, surrounded by the past that devastatingly did not feel very distant. At one point I stood in front of two large pictures. One showed a common scene of angry White men and women with snarled faces and palpable rage, almost taunting the Black person they surrounded to believe he or she had human rights. The second image showed a crowd of Black men and women marching from Selma to Montgomery, intent on exposing systemic racism, joined by a small handful of like-minded White men and women. I stood in front of these images for some time, seeking to find my place in them and posing to myself the questions that many grandparents fear hearing from their grandchildren: “Where were you when all this was happening? How did you respond?” After honest self-reflection, I couldn’t place myself among the crowd of angry, violent Whites. I couldn’t picture myself in their ranks, screaming at and spitting upon another human being. But this brought no measure of comfort, because I was equally unable to place myself in the second photo featuring men and women marching to justice. I felt certain that I would not have been in the camp of the outspoken white supremacist, but I wondered—would I have been in the other camp? Would I have bravely shown up to march or risk my safety or use my voice and body to protest? Or would I have straddled some supposed middle line, believing myself better than the KKK member but nonetheless unwilling to offer a thing for the sake of justice? Would I have been able to name a coherent rationale for the equality of all human beings but articulate it just enough to show I’m not one of the bad ones and really do nothing more? Is that the very thing I’m doing now?

These are haunting questions. They haunted me that afternoon in Birmingham and they haunt me now. These are the types of questions our brother James poses to us in his rather rambling sermon on practical religion. Drawing from his Jewish roots, James writes to Christians scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, and in his seemingly disconnected thoughts about money and wisdom and trials and taming the tongue, he seems intent on stating and restating and emphasizing this singular point: faith without works is dead.

And let us not for a second allow this this text to send us into endless debates about what we must do or not do for our souls to be saved for heaven. In doing so we castrate the very concept of salvation and we eclipse James’ message to us, i.e. that all of the thoughts in our head and beliefs we put on paper are absolutely worthless, useless, and dead as a doornail if they do not issue into substantive and corresponding action.

James’ words have played over and over in my head in the past year. If you are anything like me, you have found as of late no shortage of news clips and sound bites to enrage and provoke and disturb and disgust you. And in these moments where there is so little in which to find comfort or peace, I sometimes offer myself solace saying, “Remember you didn’t vote for this man. You didn’t help elect him. You don’t agree with these policies.” And the pleasure I find in this self-justifying salve for my frustration is, I am convinced, more dangerous than the man himself. Dr. King knew this danger well. In an open letter penned from a jail cell in the same city of Birmingham, he responded to the White clergy that decried the marches and sit-ins and open displays of civil disobedience. Like me, these White moderate were not featured in the photo of racist Whites shouting down their black neighbor. Like me, their racism was much more subtle and less discernible even to themselves but ever the more real and present and deadly. Their stated belief was pro-equality and anti-segregation, but they used their energy and action to critique every possible move of those who did not merely claim their beliefs but put their bodies on the line for it. Dr. King was so tired of the “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” mouthed by the White moderate that he named these moderate clergy a greater stumbling block for Black liberation than White Citizens Councils or the KKK.

But we would never find ourselves among those White moderate who polish their ego with self-congratulatory reminders about their stated beliefs over and against that of #45.
We would never be like the ones whom our brother James critiques in this text.
We would never claim the lordship of Christ with words but with action adhere ourselves to the gold-fingered men and women whose power and approval we crave.
We would never pride ourselves in not using the n-word while finding all manner of race-neutral language to reveal our true beliefs about people of color.
We would never seek to counter the simple claim that blacks live matter by insisting on the use of generalized value statements that reveal the need for such a specific campaign in the first place.
We would never claim the value of the right to protest while critiquing virtually every chosen method of protest people employ.
We would never preach sermons about God’s concern for the poor while deluding ourselves into believing that all the wealth at our fingertips is simply the result of hard work and industry.
We would never be more angered by an athlete kneeling at an anthem for Caesar than we are by the abuse and violation of image bearers of God.
We would never claim to believe in gender justice while asking the women in our churches to keep waiting for full equality and to be grateful for the strides we have made.
We would never decry violent protests in Baltimore and Ferguson and care absolutely nothing about the violence of systemic racism and discriminatory housing practices and substandard education in these same cities.
We would never claim to be pro-life but find reason to justify the incarceration of 2.5 million men, women, and children in the United States.
We would never state our belief in women’s equality and be more concerned with what hats some women wear at rallies than with the sexual assault they face daily.
We would never sing words like “Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary” but refuse to open our churches to persons being hunted for deportation.

Would we?

As I stood staring at the two images before me in the Birmingham museum, I felt the presence of all those who risked so much for the sake of justice, who refused to accept the social order but instead disrupt it at every juncture in which it fostered inhumane and evil treatment of human beings, who were congruent in their beliefs and their actions. But I also felt the presence of my soon-to-be daughter. I imagined standing with her not only in this museum but in the museums of the future, the ones that will detail the justice movements of today, and I heard her ask me the questions I was afraid to answer. “Where were you when this was going on? What did you to help change it?” And I knew in an instant I would never be able to claim that I was a product of my time, and that I saw things the same as others did then, and that this was just the way things were. Because this is a laughable excuse and it is bullshit. We are not products of our time; we create the products of our time and we sell them for profit at others’ expense and invent narratives to incentivize their purchase and we join hands with the gold-fingered men and women as we cling to the privilege of all we’ve created.

But I’m tired of creating products that lead to death. I’m tired of claiming belief in Jesus but opposing him in my actions. I’m tired of being so incongruent that I can’t see straight. And I think my neighbors are tired of this too, because faith without works is not only dead—it’s deadly.

So with the church, I pray this common prayer of confession, and of hope.

Almighty God, our Creator:
We have sinned against you,
through our own fault,
in thought, and word, and deed,
and in what we have left undone.
For the sake of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ,
forgive us all our offenses;
and grant that we may serve you
in newness of life,
to the glory of your name. Amen.

Where You Lead, I Will Follow: A Sermon from Matthew 23:1-12

Matthew 23:1-12  Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,  “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.  But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

I’ve thought a lot about differentiation lately. Having a one-year-old, I’m aware of just how un-differentiated she is. I am her source, her identity, her world. This connection we share is so rich and so profound that it goes beyond mere cognition, past my ability even to understand it, landing somewhere in the must guttural, primal space of my and her existence. It is real and it is stunning. And yet, I know this connection will not remain. Having a one-year-old, I’m aware of just how differentiated she already is becoming. I know the look in her eyes when she has determined her course and, despite my very clear directions otherwise, she summons all determination and splashes into the dogs’ water bowl anyways. I know that with each clumsy step she is learning to take, she is developing further into her own, unique self, connected to but separate from me. This is a necessary process. It is good. It is difficult. It is essential.

I’ve thought a lot about differentiation lately. Having spent much of my life in an evangelical Christian subculture, I think often about the ways I was formed among this people group. To be sure, I was loved. I was loved really well. I was made to believe that I had worth, that I could pursue the dreams that surged within, that God would guide me as I took each clumsy step. I was nurtured into the Christian faith from the womb, loved and cared on by my community, educated in their schools, formed in their churches. I attended their youth groups and summer camps, wore their t-shirts and sang their songs. These people invested in me, gave of their time and resources to help me grow into the woman I now am. For all of this and for more, I am grateful.

And because I was so loved by these people, when they taught me about God, I listened. They taught me about the Creator, who brought all things into existence. They told me about Jesus, the one through whom redemption comes. They taught me about the Holy Spirit, moving within and among us. They told me about God’s love for me and for the world, and I listened. They told me to follow Jesus, and so I did.

But when I did, when I followed this Jesus they told me about, he took me to places and people and ideas and movements that my church did not go and moreover, warned me against. When I asked questions seeking to discern truth, I was met with—at best—unsatisfying answers—and—at worst—disapproval and shaming. But the waters already had been stirred by the very Jesus they taught me about and so I chose to dive deeper in, eyes wide open to what I might discover. And what I discovered was confusion, and disconnection, and dissonance.

They told me about the God who created all things, who spoke life into existence and fashioned worlds with words, who formed rivers and rocks and called them good. But when I learned to love this creation and began to ask about what we might do to preserve it, when I critiqued companies who exploited the land and its resources, they told me this was part of a liberal agenda and dismissed me.

They told me about Jesus and read to me from the Gospels about his life and ministry. And so I followed this story and observed that Jesus seemed to care an awful lot about the poor and marginalized, giving them food and dignity, binding their wounds and healing their bodies. But when I named the gross inequities between the rich and poor in our country and asked what we might do to overcome this, they called me a socialist.

They told me about the Spirit who empowers us, who grants each of us gifts and abilities that we are called to bring into the community of God. So I followed the Spirit’s guiding and received the gifts God granted, gifts of preaching and teaching, but I was told these gifts are only acceptable to use in certain circumstances in certain spaces in front of certain people on certain days if indeed they are acceptable at all.

They told me about the cross of Christ, and insisted this was a central feature of our faith. So I spent time reflecting on the cross and observed it as the culmination of Jesus’ consistent refusal to employ violent means. I took to heart his teachings that the swords we live by surely are the ones by which we will die, that we are to love our enemies and perhaps this might mean to not kill them. I wondered how I could follow this Christ with any integrity in my heart if I also carried a gun in my hand or on my hip. But when I asked my church about these things, they told me this was unrealistic, that Jesus’ teachings are for individuals but have nothing to say to nation states, and that I should fear the nation state taking from me the very weapons Jesus warned against.

They took me to the baptismal font and buried me with Christ beneath the waters, calling on me to live into the newness of life in Christ, proclaiming that my identity is found therein, and I swore my allegiance to Christ. But when I began asking about all of the myriad allegiances we seem to hold that conflict with the lordship of Christ, that perhaps nationalism is the most dangerous kind of idolatry, they told me I was not a good patriot.

They told me about Paul, a man who tortured Christians and sought their death, and how his encounter with Christ opened his eyes to see the world anew, committing his life to serving the very ones he once hunted. So I began to wonder how this story of a terrorist’s conversion might inform the way we respond to ones bent on hate and destruction, how perhaps Jesus may even want to remove scales from our eyes that we might see things differently, but they assured me we are on the right team, that we are the ones with just motives, even though bombs all look the exact same no matter who is dropping them.

They taught me about the early church, a marginalized sect seeking to live into the kingdom in the midst of empire. They told me stories of the church’s courage, even in the face of persecution and death, and of their commitment to the way of Christ. But when I began wondering about how the empire in which we find ourselves dehumanizes black and brown bodies, they told me I don’t show enough respect for the flag and for country and for every other symbol that bears Caesar’s image even while the body count for image bearers of God keeps climbing.

They told me that God values life, that God formed us intimately and uniquely, and that the life of the unborn is worth protecting. And in taking this message to heart I wondered aloud how capital punishment and torture and mass incarceration devalue life and are less-than-human responses that do not promote justice but disrupt it, but they seemed to have a different definition of justice.

They taught me from the scriptures and helped me memorize texts, teaching me to love God’s word and encounter God within it. They said it would be a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. So I followed that path, and found that these scriptures contained countless commands for the people of God, themselves once enslaved in a foreign land, to remember their desperation and thus treat the foreigner in their midst with dignity. I wondered how this theme from the scriptures might inform the way we respond to an overwhelming refugee crisis, both at our borders and across the world, but my church couldn’t hear me above their fevered cries to “build that wall!”

I’ve thought a lot about differentiation lately. When my daughter was only a few weeks old, I wrote her a letter to say that I will try my best to raise her well and to nurture her in the way of Christ, but that like the community that raised me I will fail, that I am neither different from nor better than the ones who taught me to follow Christ but dismissed the places he took me. Like them, I will say one thing and do another, unaware of the ones who suffer because of my ignorance. I told her to follow Jesus no matter where he takes her, even and especially when it’s a path I reject or dismiss. I told her that she will have to differentiate between the heart of God and the ways I do or do not reflect this God. I told her to follow Christ, wherever he may lead. May we have the courage to follow him too.

"The Work of the Body" (A Good Friday sermon)

Audio: "The Work of the Body"

Throughout the 9 long months of pregnancy in which my sweet daughter was formed, more attention was paid to my body than ever before. Midwives, friends, and strangers alike would touch my belly and inquire as to how I was feeling, and the truth was, I was generally feeling terrible. Some women glow during pregnancy and take stunning maternity pictures perched atop kayaks afloat on a lake. I wore a lot of sweat pants and searched in vain to find a pair of shoes that could contain my swollen ankles. I battled nausea and fatigue, and I watched in amazement as my belly stretched further outward despite my sincere belief that certainly it had reached its limit. Even as I bemoaned the discomfort of my pregnant body, I celebrated the fact that so long as I was still pregnant, I was not giving birth, and suddenly the ache in my back seemed to ease slightly.

For the first 6 or 7 months of my pregnancy I tried to avoid thinking too much about the pending process of labor and delivery. I told myself and others that I didn’t yet have the time or energy to give it much thought or begin preparation, and this was true. I had papers to grade and lectures to write and nausea to keep at bay. But I also wanted very much to delay the point when finally I would have to face the reality that there was only one way this whole thing could end, and this baby eventually would have to make her way out. Our labor and delivery coach, bless her heart, sought to disrupt my suppression. Seconds after my having wiped away tears of panic before stepping into our first labor class, she zeroed in on me. She leveled benign and even sweet questions to the other pregnant women in our get-to-know-you exercise: “Where are you from?” “When are you due?” “What color are you painting the nursery?” For me, she went for the jugular: “What do you fear most about labor?”

Her question, and my subsequent preparation for childbirth, forced me out of my head—where I tend to live—and into my body, the vessel that was miraculously creating life within and soon would be called upon to bravely deliver that life into the world. This shift proved essential, for there is perhaps no more body-centric experience than childbirth. We can—and often do—live our lives seeking to escape our bodies, to spiritualize reality and divide the world into categories of spirit and matter, sacred and secular. But when that first contraction hits and descends on your body like a painful wave of electric energy, all of the spiritualizing in the world cannot move a baby one inch through the birth canal. This is the body’s work, and there is no room for abstraction in it. There is only the body, and movement, and blood, and groans, and pain, and beauty. Laboring life into the world is the work of the body.

From my first pangs of childbirth up until this very day, my body has been called upon to give and nurture life. I am now in a season where I do not back away from a baby’s vomit but cup my hand in hopes of catching it. I wipe noses and butts and do not shutter at either. And each day and each night, my body is broken like a Eucharistic feast, where through cracked nipples and exhausted frame I say to my little girl, “Take. Eat. This is my body, broken for you.” There is no room for abstraction here, no time for romanticizing love or even reflecting on what I feel for my daughter. There is only a precious little baby who is hungry, a body that needs to be fed and a body that must do the feeding.

We as Christians have never been very good with bodies. From the earliest church fathers up until today, we have never quite known what to do with the body. Some have called it evil. Some have attempted to punish and constrain it. Others have sought somehow to escape it, to deny embodiment and attain a more superior, spiritual plane of existence. And all the while, the central feature of our faith is God in flesh, a naked Jesus strung up on a cross. We don’t know what to do with it. Crosses are ubiquitous in the sanctuaries and decorum of many churches, yet most do not feature a body. Beyond a mere desire to emphasize resurrection, I am convinced that the absence of the body on the cross is due at least in part to our inability or unwillingness to make sense of embodiment. And so we spiritualize the cross, we think about concepts like salvation in abstract terms, and we never have to face the flesh-and-blood realities of a body on a cross. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve seen enough movies about the passion of Jesus to know that we have long emphasized his suffering. But too often, these depictions have served to engender guilt as we face the cross of Christ with shamed heads and shoulders hung low, sorry for our sinful flesh. And far too often, these reactions have compelled us away from our bodies, which we believe to be inherently sinful, and into our heads which feels much safer. But it was the flesh of Christ that was broken, the blood that was poured out. And these were not spiritual abstractions; they were the means of bodily punishment inflicted by an idolatrous empire that sought to make clear what would happen to anyone who dare challenge its power. Jesus knew well the power dynamics at play in his world. He knew what happened to the bodies of those who quietly submitted to unjust structures, how their shoulders stooped from despair and hopelessness. And he knew what happened to the bodies of those who sought to overthrow unjust structures by force; they were strewn about lifeless on hillsides of battle. In the midst of this, Jesus—through his voice, his actions, his body—spoke of God’s kingdom, of the news that was truly good for all of the hungry and broken and wounded and oppressed and frightened bodies. And in his own body, he took on all of the deathblows that define and threaten our fragile, anxious lives and from it brought forth new life. Laboring life into the world was the work of his body.

This is the body whose death we both mourn and celebrate, the body whom we gather in the name of. We are the body of Christ. And friends, we are no less vulnerable than was Jesus to all of the many threats from every death-wielding power. We know the kinds of trouble we might face if we choose to use our voices, our resources, our bodies to seek justice and live into God’s kingdom. In the face of our vulnerability we may quietly want to retreat into our minds where safely we can spiritualize love and salvation and think of the cross in an abstract way, distancing ourselves from what we fear most. But if labor taught me anything it is that when we are afraid, we close off our bodies, we disrupt the life force that is inside of us ready to burst forth into the world.

Laboring life into the world is the work of this body. And much like I was some 6 months ago, church, we are a body that miraculously cultivates life and is being called upon bravely to deliver that life into the world, a world that so desperately needs life. For it is not abstractions but bodies that wash up lifeless on the shores of Greece, bodies that are gunned down in elementary schools, bodies that are lynched on magnolia trees, bodies that are the target of bombs, bodies that face starvation in Sudan, bodies that are exploited for profit, bodies that are gassed in their sleep, bodies that are deported, bodies that are snuffed out before their first breath is taken, bodies that are battling cancer, bodies that need resurrection.

Let us not fear the life that God is growing within us, nor be afraid when we are called on to bring it forth. For just as we eat of Christ’s flesh and drink of his blood, we are being asked to pour forth our own lives as a Eucharistic offering to a world that, like a newborn baby, is hungry and desperately in search of a meal. Come now to the table, beloved body of Christ. Let us offer of our bodies to nourish life in the world as we feast on Christ’s body to sustain our own.

Risks and Refugees Worth Taking

I am, by nature, averse to taking risks. I have always admired friends who, despite the potential of failure, choose to embark on new ventures, open businesses, establish non-profits. This tolerance for risk is not a trait that comes easily to me. From my earliest recollection I have been one who seeks to control my environment, and taking risks does not square with my felt-need for predictability. I seek to limit the possibility of failure, and I work hard to maintain my sense of control. This is my nature.

And then, a year ago, I found myself in the office of my spiritual director, desperately seeking to find a vocational context that was more life-giving than the one I was in. I did not lack for vision; I knew exactly what I wanted. I did not lack for desire; my passion was fierce. I did not lack for encouragement; I was surrounded by folks spurring me on. But what I did lack was any willingness to take the risk of leaving a job that had become toxic and to step into the unknown. I feverishly named all of the risks I would face in resigning in order to set up my own practice as a spiritual director. I articulated every reason why going that route would be difficult and uncertain and would offer no guarantee of success. And then my director posed a simple question: “What are you risking by staying where you are?” And in an instant, I realized it. I was taking a risk no matter what decision I made, and risking my health and well-being and sanity were not risks worth taking in order to retain presumed sense of security. The next day I made the decision to resign and open my practice.

My director’s question took my once (I thought) airtight reasoning and flipped it on its head. I could no longer believe that one option was full of risks and the other secure. I realized that no matter what I chose to do, no matter where I found myself, I was facing risks, and ultimately, I had to decide which were worth taking.

And this either/or mentality rears its ugly head as we evaluate potential responses to the overwhelming global refugee crisis. Not since WWII has the world seen such a surge in men, women, and children escaping hell on earth and seeking refuge. Recent weeks also have been marked by a surge in discussion about appropriate responses to the crisis, as Americans—average citizens and federal judges alike—debate the implications of President Trump’s travel ban. American Christians wrestle with their dual identities (i.e. Christian, and American), wondering which trumps which.

The mindset is this: we (and how this “we” is defined is crucial) cannot risk exposing ourselves to the potential threat of terror that may be hiding in the shadows of the refugee population. Inherent to this logic is an assumption that 1) we already are safe, and 2) that this must be protected at all costs. And I just wonder, when did safety become the highest virtue worth pursuing? When did we begin to measure our presumed sense of safety with greater value than human life?

I’m not belittling the human penchant towards safety, or our desire to protect our families. These can be good values that are worth pursuing. But I am critiquing the false belief that one option (i.e. to embrace refugees) involves risk, and the other (i.e. to not embrace them) does not. We are taking risks no matter the option we pursue. Might we risk the “safety” of our nation by opening our doors wider? Yes, there is risk here, for which there are no guarantees. But the other option is to offer up our humanity on the altar of presumed safety and in doing so find that what we sacrificed was our very dignity as human beings. Is this a risk worth taking?

When our desire to feel safe outweighs our willingness to embrace the humanity in others (and thus not forfeit our own), something is askew. It becomes painfully clear that the fundamental narrative by which we operate is not the kingdom of God, but rather a bastardized American co-option of the Christian faith that will choose self-preservation every single time. And what kind of life is worth preserving when it necessarily dismisses the cry of others to live theirs?

As I explore the Sermon on the Mount with my students this week in a Biblical Ethics class, these questions run through my head. And I wonder, what beatitudes might Jesus articulate were they not framed for a first century Jewish audience living within the Roman Empire but rather a 21st century Christian audience living in America?

Blessed are you when you take risks, for you will find yourself freed up from the illusion that you could control and predict anything in the first place.

Blessed are you when you extend your arms wide open to embrace the “other,” for you will find that perhaps there is no action closer to God than this.

Blessed are you when you release your grip from whatever helps you feel safe and thus be awakened to the reality of God as your protector and source.

Blessed are you when you seek to uphold the humanity and dignity of others, and in doing so discover your own.

Recently I saw a makeshift sign stating the simplest of declarations: “Refugees are human beings.” Yes indeed, refugees are human beings. Are we?

Postpartum, Post-Election

For the last several weeks, I have awoken each morning with the heaviest of eyes. I have an eight-week-old little girl, who has managed at the same time to make my heart feel larger and my body feel weaker than ever before. It feels as though I have aged 8 years in 8 weeks. I get little sleep, I spend every waking minute bouncing her from one hip to another, and my body is called upon every hour and a half to feed her—whether I have the energy or not. In the midst of my exhaustion, in the moments where I feel I cannot manage things another hour, when I feel anger and sadness and desperation, I image God as a Mother and I pour my heart out to her in words and tears and moans. While I serve as my daughter’s source of comfort and nourishment and safety, I seek these out in the safe bosom of my God who invites me to her chest, to hear her heart beat and know that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. As I sit with cracked nipples and leaking breasts, I see my God as one familiar with her body being broken on behalf of those she loves, of giving herself entirely so we might be fully alive. In the very same moment, I am both a reflection of this God to my daughter—body broken and poured out for her—and I am a desperate child needing this God’s loving embrace.

For the last several weeks, I have awoken each morning with the heaviest of hearts. I have watched as beloved children of God have found themselves the victims of cruel words, of hateful attacks, of vile threats. I have listened as persons have shared through tears what it’s like to be harassed while trying to pump fuel at a gas station, what it’s like to have someone rush up behind you threatening to grab you by your vagina, what it’s like to send your child back to school the day after he has been told by classmates that he will now have to go back to where he came from since America is finally building that wall. My heart has not known grief like this for some time, and I feel so overwhelmed by it at times that I cannot even speak. Last week when I learned of the election results at 2 am (incidentally while I was half awake feeding my daughter), I wept. I did not weep because I have any allegiance to a political party or candidate (I don’t). I didn’t weep because I believe that those in political office are of the greatest concern to our wellbeing as children of God or that their form of power is ultimate (I don’t). I wept because, as I held my sweet daughter in my arms whose cries I could soothe with gentle hands and an ample breast, I knew there were countless persons going to bed that night shaking with fear, crying tears of worried concern for their safety, wondering what this would mean for them and their families. And I just longed to have arms and chest great enough to comfort them all.

I have spent many hours in tears these past few weeks, feeling weak and distraught and exhausted, feeling angry and hopeless and afraid. I have cried in desperation to know that, while I commit to caring for the little girl entrusted to me, God will be caring for her children as well. To those who have been singled out and attacked for their ethnicity or sexual orientation or religion, I imagine God cradling them in her arms, assuring them that she too knows what its like to be hated, rejected, and even killed, reminding them that their identity and value are found in their reflection of her image.

In the wee hours of the morning, when I am once again being called to care for a little one who knows no other means of recourse but to need me, I will find comfort in the God who lies awake with me, whose body has been broken and poured out on our behalf, who invites me to her chest so I can hear the beating of her heart and feel assured that she sees her children, she knows our fear, and she will care for us well. Thanks be to God.

A Prayer of Lament and Repentance

This week, our church hosted the first of what will be a series of conversations and exercises to address racial injustice in our churches and communities. I shared the piece below at the event, as I am convinced no movement towards justice can occur without truth-telling. And if folks like myself who inhabit life in white skin are to tell the truth, we cannot—must not, should not—escape the need for repentance.

_________________________________

If you have come to this gathering today, then likely you have identified racial justice as something of urgent significance—for individuals, for our churches, and for our world. You have watched with discomfort, with tears, with anger as our nation continues to demonstrate its ugly and complex history of racial injustice, oppression, and violence. You have wondered what you as one human can do in the face of seemingly overwhelming hatred and bigotry. You have tried to hold onto hope, while the events of each passing day tempt you to relinquish it. You have fallen to know your knees and prayed once again to see a world that more closely glimpses the kingdom of God.

But if, like me, you have contemplated any of these realities in white skin, then you also have questioned your own complicity in cycles of injustice. You have begun to identify this complex notion of white privilege, all the while knowing intuitively that you cannot begin fully to perceive or unravel it. And perhaps, like me, you have sensed the pangs of guilt, of doubt, of grief.

Friends, we are part of a rich faith tradition of men and women who have, in the face of great difficulty and anguish, contributed their voices to the great song of lament sung from the earliest ages up until our present moment. This act of lament is a gift, an invitation to name what is most true, to acknowledge our limitedness, to mourn for our brokenness, to repent of our wrongdoings. If we as children of God believe that racial justice is close to the heart of the One whose image we bear, indeed if it is why we are gathered here today, then it stands to reason that we must take the time first to lament and mourn our past and present realities if we are to together dream of a different future.

I invite you now to join me, brothers and sisters, as together we add our voices to this song of lament. Please note: this liturgy was penned as a prayer for white persons, not with any intent to be exclusive but so that we can carry the burden of repentance that we bear uniquely. If you inhabit this space in a black or brown body, please feel free to participate to whatever extent feels appropriate to you.

As I read, please join me by reading aloud the bold print.

 

For the violence in our world and in our hearts,

For the violence in our streets and in our homes,

For the violence we permit and the violence we perpetuate,

We repent.

 

For what we know to be true of our troubled nation,

For what we think we know that is in fact misguided,

For what we can never fully know from our privileged vantage point,

We repent.

 

For the ways we knowingly create cycles of injustice,

For the ways we do so unaware,

For the times we pretend things are not as bad as they seem,

We repent.

 

For the privilege we have done nothing to earn,

For the privilege we desperately long to retain,

For the privilege that pushes others to the side even as we continue to rise on their backs,

We repent.

 

For our fear at the anger of our black brothers and sisters,

For our attempts to stifle and silence and manage their anger,

For the failure to channel our anger in ways that nurture life,

We repent.

 

For our despair in the face of such grievous injustice,

For our failure to believe another world is possible,

For our unwillingness to participate in bringing this new world about,

We repent.

 

For the ways in which we are conditioned to hate,

For our inability to rise above such deeply ingrained patterns,

For the belief that our conditioning is any less dangerous than that of our ancestors,

We repent.

 

For our mixed motives in seeking to partner with movements of justice,

For the acknowledgement we hope to garner,

For our unrelenting need to feel validated even as ones who already hold inestimable privilege and power,

We repent.

 

For the times we have raised our voices in ways that silence others,

For the times we have remained silent for fear of reprisal,

For the ways our words have brought harm and offense,

We repent.

 

For the power we possess that was fortified through the disempowering of our black brothers and sisters,

For the power we hold and do not harness in life-giving ways,

For the power we cling to when we fear it may be lost,

We repent.

 

For our nation’s bloody and troubled history,

For the racist blood that yet runs through our veins,

For our failure to live into the reconciled community made possible through the blood of Christ,

We repent.

 

For the times we have not listened to the cries of the marginalized,

For the choices we make that give reason for such cries,

For our failure to join their voices in crying out for a better and more just world,

We repent.

  

For the day when all shall be made well,

For the time when love will overcome,

For the promise that this world is not yet as it will one day be,

We rejoice.

 

For the forgiveness of our sins which have divided us from others,

For the beauty of communities living into reconciliation,

For the Spirit’s work to make this possible,

We rejoice.

 

For the gathering of God’s beloved here today,

For the movement of God among us to bring about racial justice,

For the mandate we have been given to be persons of peace, of justice, and love,

We rejoice.

 

Gracious God, in whom there is no partiality, in whose image white and black and brown bodies are made, grant that we might be ones who reject all systems that prop us injustice, empower us to dismantle them, and inspire us to build a world that leads to the flourishing of all. Rid us of the pursuit of the kinds of power that harm and subjugate, fortify our resolve to utilize the power we do possess to serve and empower others, and by the power of your Spirit at work, create within and among and through us the world as it is meant to be. In the name of God the Creator, God the Savior, and God the Spirit,

Amen.

 

Race and Gender: What Being a Woman Preacher Has to do With Racial (In)Justice

I am a woman. I am a woman who preaches. Though we are not many, more and more women continue to use their voices and their gifts to speak prophetically and pastorally in their churches and communities. One of the greatest gifts of knowing other women called to preach is when we are able to sit together, share a meal or a drink, and talk about the complex and difficult realities of being a woman in a world/field/church wherein men have ruled for centuries. When I'm alone, it's too easy to question the anger that surfaces when men consistently cut me off or (consciously or otherwise) insist their voice have a louder hearing. When it's just me in the room, I too quickly reject the painful emotions of not feeling heard or seen, or I suppress the frustration of having to jump through yet another hoop in order to secure a seat at the table. But when I'm with my sisters, when I'm surrounded by other women whose reality mirrors mine, I am free. I can shed the felt-need to hold it together or represent all women or not show too much emotion, and I can simply feel all that I feel and name all that I experience and find it/myself validated. There is nothing like it.

The reason I desperately need community with fellow women preachers is because they see through a similar lens. They encounter similar experiences. They hear what I hear and none of us has to convince the other that any of it is real. This is not the case outside of such a circle. As a woman who preaches, I hear and see and experience life in a particular way. I notice and observe certain realities that others simply don't. This is not a critique; it is simply true.

Allow me to give an example. Recently I was invited to preach a sermon at a conference where hundreds of persons (mostly men) were presenting papers and lectures and sermons. I was among a small group of women asked to participate in a preaching series focused on particular biblical figures. I say "sermon" and "preaching series" because this is what it was, but this is not the language that was used by the conference organizers. They called it a "speaking series." The women asked to participate were labeled "speakers," not preachers. The words we crafted and delivered were not described as a sermon but as a "lesson" or "presentation." In previous years when only men have participated in this way, it was rightly referred to as a preacher's series, because this is what it was: a group of men preaching sermons. But in the first year the group was comprised of females, the language had to be altered to appease the sensibilities of those organizing and attending the event. Most persons did not notice. Most of my friends who listened to my sermon that day paid no attention to the nuance in language, nor did they care. They came to listen and support me. But for the handful of us women who preached, we heard and felt the sting every single word. We were aware of the subtleties. Our antennae were tuned in to the insidious and simple but nonetheless powerful ways in which language shaped our reality that day. We could not be called preachers, though that is what we are. We could not deliver sermons, though that is what we did.

My experience with these inequities goes beyond nuance in language. I have been asked to preach in settings where, not only could my sermon not be labeled as such (as not to offend those with particular positions of women preaching), but where a man had to remain on the platform with me to demonstrate that indeed, he still retained authority over me (and thus all was still right in the bureaucracy of church polity and no one had to be concerned that women were usurping power, even as we pretended women and men had equal voice). I have been asked to teach in settings where it's permissible for me to instruct students in certain content, such as spiritual disciplines, but where women are not permitted to teach explicitly scripture-based classes, such as Luke-Acts. I have heard stories from women with PhD's from Ivy League institutions who, while seeking to share their gifts in a Bible class on Sunday mornings, had to not only co-teach with a lesser qualified man but who had to remain seated while he stood (once again demonstrating proper authority). I know women who invest invaluable time and energy into ministry positions in churches but whose title must remain "coordinator" while a man performing the exact same duties is labeled "pastor." And on, and on, and on.

Here is the most important thing I want to convey. For those whom these realities do not obviously affect, they almost always remain unaware of and ignorant to what I and other women preachers experience. And I don't fault them for this. The intent here is neither to drum up sympathy for myself nor to lay blame at the feet of others. My sole intent is to say that I experience reality in a particular way because of who I am (i.e. a woman preacher), a reality largely missed or ignored by others who do not claim this identifier. In fact, many might look at the circumstances and deem them equitable. They may even celebrate that a woman was able to speak in a church or participate in a conference. They might genuinely perceive this as a victory for equality and justice, and hold sincere gratitude in their hearts for it. They might never notice the subtle shifts in language, or the continued presence of a male figure on the stage with me

But for those of who spend countless hours pouring into a sermon, only for it to be called a "lesson," for those of us who have spent years of our lives studying and earning degrees in preparation for ministry only to find our presence must still be validated by male authority, you damn well better believe we notice. We cannot help but notice. It affects us. It shapes how we think and feel about ourselves. And quietly but powerfully, it ensures that unjust power structures and church practices are able to remain in tact all the while pretending to be more equitable.

And ultimately, here is my point: just because you do not see or hear or experience something does not mean it doesn't exist. Because I have known this to be so undeniably true for me, I have become convinced it is true for my black and brown brothers and sisters who claim experiences that I have not had. They decry a reality that is not readily visible to me in my white-skinned existence. The stories they tell are not the stories I tell. And far too easily, I can dismiss them because it does not comport with my own reality. I can reject their cries as an attempt to stir up discord and disrupt order, and entirely miss the fact that what I perceive as order is in fact utter chaos for those who live it in different skin.

I know what it feels like to champion gender justice in religious communities, only to encounter those who claim our cause as seeking to divide our churches, those who insist we are making a big issue out of what is not, those who witness our anger and hurt and passion and label it dangerous, disruptive. And because I know what this feels like, I will continue to insist that we open our ears to hear what our black and brown brothers and sisters are saying. I will insist that when they describe their interactions with persons in authority, or lament the subtle ways they are dismissed and marginalized, or articulate the realities of embodied existence as persons of color in a world that claims to be post-racial but is in fact anything but, I will insist that we listen. I will insist that we stop talking, that we reject the felt-need to counter their story or share our own opinion, and just listen. I want so desperately to have a posture of humility, to place myself as a listener at the table where others share their stories, because I so desperately need others to do that for me and for the women with whom I am called to preach.

And when we do finally listen and seek to understand, when we stop outright rejecting another's claim because it does not immediately mirror our own experience, when we ask questions instead of demanding our opinion be heard, we begin to discover a reality that was true all the while but escaped us entirely until we had eyes to see it. This is true for gender justice, and it is true for racial justice.

I am a woman. I am a woman called to preach. And while at times my sermon might be labeled something else or my power attempted to be restrained by men in authority, I will use all of my energy and my abilities and my voice to speak what is true, to peel back the curtain and cast light on reality, to pursue God's intended shalom in every corner of this world--for women, for black and brown bodies, for the kingdom of God.

Orlando Reflections: How We've Lost Our Imaginations and Why We Must Get Them Back

Orlando holds many memories for me, both having spent the first 18 years of my life growing up on Florida's beaches and being raised in a family of Disney annual pass-holders. The news we woke up to last Sunday—that 49 men and women, mostly LGBT, had been murdered—adds a new and haunting entry to our collective memories of Orlando.

In the wake of such horrors, I am always struck by the contrast of simultaneously witnessing humanity at its worst and at its best. I am moved by the countless acts of courage and love and humility, amazed by the examples of folks becoming more fully who they are created to be by serving those around them while the chaos still ensues. I am grateful that the majority of responses from persons around the country were full of love and sadness and grief and care. All of these things are true, and as we mourn I also express gratitude for such beauty.

But I am also struck by another reality that is always at play but perhaps most obvious and overt in conversations that take place in the aftermath of tragedy: we have lost our imaginations, and we must get them back. In the city of Orlando, a man named Walt Disney literally stood over swampy, undesirable land and saw before him a theme park that would inspire creativity and innovation for decades to come (and anyone who has been to Disney World, particularly at Christmas, knows the magic it holds). Yet many years after Disney's doors were opened in Orlando, an act of violence and terror was committed in the same city, and within hours of the final gunshot ringing out, we began debating gun policies in the same old tired ways we always have, without any imagination.

I am convinced that as Christians, one of our gravest missteps is to allow whatever sociopolitical systems are at hand to shape the ways we think about everything. Let me say this from the beginning (lest one be tempted to think I write with a hidden agenda): I am a strong advocate for stricter gun laws. I make no attempts to hide this. But I am absolutely convinced that there is significantly more at play when we talk about violence and gun rights and the 2nd Amendment than two entrenched sides that advocate either for fewer or more restrictions on gun ownership. If we as Christians know only how to engage such deeply important content through existing categories of pro/anti, Republican/Democrat, conservative/progressive, then we have allowed our minds and hearts to be co-opted--no matter what our position on guns.

This is true of any hot-button issue: LGBT civil rights, abortion, climate change, etc. For any of these, we can clearly draw the boundary lines of American political ideologies and name the two opposing positions, and we generally can identify which of these towards which we gravitate. But whether we vote "pro-choice" or "pro-life" in regards to abortion, we have merely scratched the surface. We simply have worked within the predetermined sociopolitical complex we've been given and in which we have been told, "These are your options." So we pick one and become ever more embattled and polarized in the process. If we are followers of Christ, we can do better. We MUST do better.

When Jesus delivered what we now refer to as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), he did not simply articulate a list of ethical imperatives to which the church must adhere (though there are ethical implications to the sermon's content). I am convinced that Jesus' primary purpose in his ministry was to stir up our imaginations, to invite us to see that another world is possible and indeed already is in our midst, that the kingdom of God is among us and we can live into this new reality. When he tells his Jewish audience to carry a soldier's load for a second mile when forced to carry it one, he is inviting them to rethink everything about the scenario with which they were all too familiar. In the first century, the law allowed Roman soldiers to force one to carry their gear for up to one mile. As oppressed Jews in occupied territory, this was a humiliating and degrading act. But then Jesus comes along and tells them to see through different eyes, to glimpse the scenario not as one in which they are coerced to labor for their oppressors but where they can willingly choose to serve their enemy, thus upending and subverting the systems that once governed their oppression and instead contributing to one of love and service. When Jesus speaks of a new way to think about anger and retribution and violence, he is not advocating a particular voting option ("You have heard it said vote ____, but I say vote ____"); he is literally stirring up within his listeners' minds a vision for what life in the kingdom of God is like, a kingdom wherein violence is overcome by love, where anger at others is swallowed up in humility, where "enemies" become neighbors. This is the world we have been invited into. This is the kingdom inaugurated in Jesus' ministry. This is the truest of true realities that guides the ways we think and live and navigate everything, including gun laws.

I am not advocating for a withdrawal of engagement with political realities. Indeed, all of theology is political and impacts human flourishing. But what I am suggesting is that no matter what legislation exists, no matter who is in office, no matter what votes are cast, human political structures (of any stripe: democratic, socialist, etc.) simply never will achieve the vision that Christ compels us to have for creation. I desperately want fewer weapons in this world and believe greater restrictions on gun ownership are essential, but no matter how Congress enacts gun reform, I care significantly more about the prophetic vision spoken of in Isaiah 2 about the kingdom of God wherein folks will "beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war no more."

This vision can never be confined to arguments over gun reform. This vision demands that we engage our imaginations to consider what a world without violence and destruction would be like, that we loosen ourselves from the grip of however reality (even in its best forms!) has been defined by the sociopolitical systems in which we find ourselves, and that we throw all of our energy into living as if this world, this kingdom is here in its fullness (as it will one day be). Moreover, this vision calls me to repentance, to acknowledge each and every decision I make that says "yes" to a world that falls so very short of the kingdom. And so I must acknowledge the ways that my anger and hostility, my selfishness and attempts at self-preservation perpetuate the very kind of violence that one day will cease to be but that today continues to ravage all of creation--no matter my position on gun reform.

If we believe Americans have the right to own guns for self-protection, what would it look like to cast off our fear and trust that God's kingdom of peace and non-violence is actually truer than our desire for self-preservation? If we believe Americans' access to guns should be restricted to one degree or another, what would it look like to unhinge our imaginations from however "progress" currently is defined and consider the even more beautiful truth that the coming kingdom is marked by true peace (and peace not defined by a sociopolitical structure but by the very nature of God)?

As we mourn the deaths of so many in the city of Orlando, may we as ones who follow Christ refuse to narrow our willingness and ability to perceive reality in the categories that have been laid before us. May we allow Christ to invigorate our imaginations to see that indeed another world is possible, that indeed the kingdom is coming, that indeed we have been empowered to live into it as the truest of all realities.

One day, mass shootings will be swallowed up in God's kingdom of peace, non-violence, and justice. Can you imagine?

Violence in My Neighborhood: Holding Two Things Together at the Same Time

I've seen many similar stories pop up on my computer screen over the last few years, but what stopped me in my tracks was the location of the incident. This was not a story about Ferguson or New Orleans or any other city hundreds of miles away. It was a story about a violent attack in Nashville, only 2 streets from my house. It's not the first time I've witnessed violence on my street, but it still takes my breath away every time. It still makes me angry and sad and hopeful all at the same time.

In this case, a police officer witnessed a man assault a woman and he ran in to apprehend the man. While struggling to arrest him, a few bystanders kicked and punched the police officer, who ultimately suffered minor injuries (and very fortunately nothing worse). Immediately, I saw individuals--none of whom live in Nashville--posting this video, asking why the "liberal media" wasn't showing it (which, by the way, they did). It's fair to ask about and critique media's selective coverage, but a much more important question in this matter--it seems to me--is one I wanted to pose to those angry persons re-posting the videos. I wanted to ask them what they knew of Nashville, of its history of systemic racism, of its affordable housing shortage, of my colleague who can still recall what it was like to be a little black girl in Nashville in the 60's and unable to try on dresses at department stores because otherwise white people wouldn't purchase the clothing once it had touched her skin. I wanted to ask them what they know of the Cayce Housing Unit where this incident occurred, of the fact that so many of its residents can't find employment because of a criminal background (mostly for non-violent, drug-related offenses that are punished inordinately)*, a label that will never leave them. I wanted to know if any of these video-posters had ever met a single person who lives in my neighborhood, ever walked the block with them or heard their stories or shared a meal together.

I wanted to ask these questions, not because the answers in any way justify the harming of another human being in general or police officers in particular. I'm just as pissed off about that kind of violence as anyone should be. But just as passionately I'm confident that an incident like this, violence like this, never occurs in a vacuum. It doesn't occur outside of a particular context. It doesn't involve people without stories and histories of their own. And all of these factors play into the 45 seconds of footage that can be spread to millions of homes within seconds, not once accounting for the decades of history that led to the few moments caught on tape.

I'll say it again: in absolutely no way am I condoning violence against another human being. But what I am advocating for is an altogether different approach to how we interpret the stories we hear and see and tell one another and ourselves. What I am advocating for is a posture that does not see a 45-second video and immediately become further entrenched in a position. And above all, what I'm advocating for is an absolutely vital truth that we all too easily neglect but always with devastating consequences: two things can be true at the same time. At the same time, it can be true to say that the actions of a young man who assaulted a woman and a police officer are wrong, are deplorable, are against God's design for creation, and also say that--perhaps--this young man was offered a system that failed him time and again, that failing schools and unjust policing practices** and chaos in his home may have cultivated the type of anger and violence that led to such a moment as this. At the same time, it can be true to say that it's never acceptable to assault a police officer--or any human being--while also acknowledging that there are all too many persons in positions of authority who have harmed and degraded and victimized those on the margins. At the same time, we can say truly that our individual choices matter, and that systems affect the ability of humans to flourish.

I am convinced that one of the primary reasons our positions on issues that matter so very much remain so entrenched and polarized is because we refuse to see or believe that two things can be true at the same time. We refuse to say that black lives matter and that violence against police officers is deplorable. We refuse to say that persons can and must make good choices that lead to their positive futures and that unjust systems propped in place for centuries deny certain persons to the ability to succeed no matter their individual choices. We can, we must, acknowledge that these assertions are not in opposition to one another. They exist concurrently, sometimes in tension but nonetheless equally true.

So to my friends who post a 45-second video of an incident in Nashville (or Ferguson, or Flint, or wherever), by all means, feel angry about the violence. But pause to consider how a seeming isolated incident is wrapped up in decades of forces at work which have nothing to do with these two individual men and yet shape every bit of their interactions. Recognize that truth is always more complex and multi-layered than we want to believe it to be. And pray for God's kingdom of peace and justice to reign more fully in our world, and in our own hearts.

 

*Read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow for a powerful and important exploration of mass incarceration and the persons of color caught up in it.


**I'm so grateful that in this case, it appears the officer was responding justly to an incident of violence. It's also true that this is not always the case, and that in some instances police officers act out of very different motives and with very different results. Once again, both of these things can be true at the same time.

Naming God

I have a favorite spiritual practice of noting every time I hear or see or encounter a name for God. This is not the same thing as a "names of God" Bible study that tries to make sense of Hebrew phrases like "El Shaddai," though such studies can be helpful. What I search for are names not necessarily inherent to the biblical text or church liturgy but nonetheless get at this mystery we call "God." I look for words or phrases that stir up something in me that has been seeking to put language to my experience of the Divine that is in fact beyond language. I love this practice because it helps orient me to the broader and deeper and more beautiful ways I have come to understand and experience God. As I continue to encounter the Divine in new ways, sometimes I find that the names and metaphors I've been given (in Scripture, in church, etc.) struggle to hold up under the weight of embodied experience. It's not that they cease to be true; it's that they cease to be sufficient. So I continue my search for words and phrases that, when I find them, move within me like a powerful wind, signaling that I've gotten close to glimpsing just a bit more fully who God is:

The Ultimate Ancestor

All That Is

The Really Real

That Which is Beyond Knowing but not Beyond Loving

The Ground of All Being

Holy Mystery

She Who Dwells Within

Mysterious Other

The More

The Sacredness of Doubt

Recently a friend of mine shared with me about the season of life and faith in which she found herself. I listened and asked her if she had found spaces in which she felt safe to share about the doubts and confusion she sensed. She shared that she had found very few people who could hold what she brought to the conversation about her faith (or lack of it), and that in fact when another friend found out she was "struggling," this friend set up a lunch to talk to her about all the reasons why she should believe and not doubt.

I'm not one to turn down a free lunch, but I am one to decry our seeming inability to embrace the sacredness of doubt, of wonder, of questioning, of mystery. I have spent years of my life pursuing theological studies, and I've learned much. But the more I study and engage with my faith, the less convinced I become about most everything. In fact, I'm most skeptical of those who claim to be certain of much, who seem to operate within a closed system that accounts for everything, a paradigm that is bounded and sure. I'm skeptical because so very much of life pokes endless holes in such a system. I'm skeptical because, generally speaking, those who operate in certainty seem to be the most threatened by others' lack of it.

Doubt, wrestling, questioning, uncertainty: these are not in opposition to faith, but are rather a pursuit of something real, something sincere. A faith that must exist sans any space for doubt is not faith at all but fear, a fear that compels us to white knuckle our grip on whatever truths feel comfortable and to ignore the presence of anything less/other. I'm convinced that doubt is a sacred act because it is real, the way that sacraments are sacred because they invite us into an encounter with the Really Real, the way that creation is sacred because it resonates with the part of us that so much of our lived reality can't begin to touch, the way that our religious texts are sacred because they capture honest and sincere and beautiful communication with the Divine.

If you find yourself questioning and wondering and feeling less certain than ever before, do not be afraid. Press in, engage, pursue. In our release of certainty, we encounter the Mystery in ways deeper and more true than we ever thought possible.

And if you find yourself across from a friend who is questioning and wondering and feeling less certain that ever before, do not be afraid. Simply listen and give thanks to a God who has never needed or demanded our certainty.

A Sermon for Easter

John 20:1-30

This is a full season for my husband and me for many reasons, namely the awaited arrival of our first baby in September. As parents-in-waiting we are preparing for much, and learning to be at peace with the limits of such preparation. Holidays, like the one we celebrate today, are a feature of our conversations, exploring how we desire to raise our daughter, which aspects of holidays we want to retain and which we would prefer to discard. As many have rightfully mourned the commercialization of sacred days, there also has been a movement among churches to ensure that we not skip too quickly past good Friday and Holy Saturday, that we not jump feet first into the joyous morning of Easter without first letting our toes sink into the earth stained by the blood and sweat and tears of Christ. This is an important corrective, I think, as it calls us to linger for just a bit in the sheer horror and brutality of crucifixion, of death, before moving to celebrate the beauty of new life in the resurrection. But even here, even on Easter morning, I still don’t feel fully ready to pull myself away from the darkness of death and mourning.

Now you should know that if you came today expecting a light and airy sermon, something akin perhaps to the pastel-colored Peeps marshmallows that are ubiquitous on store shelves this time of year, then you may be disappointed. Understand that at times I also want a sweet taste on my mouth, a bite of something light and delicious, but I also know that slightly nauseous feeling I get in my stomach after tasting such sweetness, as my body knows that what is cheap and artificial can never satisfy its longings. On this Easter morning, I struggle to talk about resurrection, about new life. My conscience and theological sensibilities will not allow me to move too quickly to Sunday. How can I when the smoke is still rising into the air from an airport and subway station in Brussels? How can I speak of life when a beloved mentor of mine still mourns the recent death of his son? What does it mean to celebrate life on the very morning that so many will wake to find their loved ones lost to acts of terror and brutality? At times it feels naive at best and heartless at worst to joyfully speak of resurrection when death still seems to rule the day. It’s not that I fail to believe in the power of Jesus’ victory over the grave, it’s just that like Mary Magdelene, full of tears and leaning in to see the tomb, sometimes I wonder, “Where is Jesus? Where have they taken his body?”

Anyone who has known trauma knows that in the aftermath, death still lingers. A minister living and serving in the heart of New Orleans understood this well. Several years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, despite the public’s urging for the people of the city to move on, he remarked that, “The storm is gone, but the ‘after the storm’ is always here.”[1] His comment speaks to the intrusive nature of death and devastation, how it still rears it head even after the worst of the storm has passed. I’ve spent the last year of my life listening to the stories of women who have survived sexual abuse, conducting research on the ways their trauma experiences have interfaced with their faith and spirituality. Each of these women spoke of bold and beautiful encounters of healing and resurrection from the wounds inflicted by the hands of others, ways they have nurtured new life and meaning. And while I continually am moved by the resilience of these women, amazed at how the Spirit of the risen Christ within them has rendered new life in the shell of the old, I also recall the ways these women spoke of the death that still remains, the trauma that never really goes away, the intrusion of Friday’s horror into the joy of Sunday.

No matter the source of our wounds, each of us has lived long enough to know that even today as we rightfully celebrate life, all around us lingers the stench of death. It is in our world, in our lives, in our own hearts. I imagine this was true also of Jesus’ earliest followers. Even after finding an empty tomb, after encountering the risen Christ or sharing conversation with him in a locked room, the sadness and pain lingered. These men and women had lost their friend, their teacher. Mary still mourned the death of her son. Jesus’ friends recalled the sheer horror of his torture and crucifixion. They shuddered in fear for how the powers and principalities might see to their meeting a similar end. In the same breath, in the same moment, they rejoiced at Jesus’ triumph over the grave while still seeing all of the places where the burial cloths had not yet been stripped away, seeing those who still faced oppression in the midst of empire, watching as the darkness still seemed to cast a shadow in mid day. And yet, despite this tension, I sense that Jesus’ followers felt something akin to the sentiments Peter expressed some time earlier in the face of difficult and troubling words from Jesus: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Jesus, we do not understand what it means to celebrate your resurrection when so much death and destruction and chaos persist around us. We don’t know fully how to rejoice when circumstances still lead us to tears. Yet even so, you have the words of eternal life. Your kingdom beckons us. Where else can we go?

Despite the tension we face as death and life exist in unbounded, non-linear categories, there is something still compelling about the resurrection of Christ because it speaks a better word, a word that does not erase our stories but speaks to them. The truth of resurrection is not that we have ceased to know death; it is that in the midst of this death we are joined by the very God who entered into our sorrow and suffering, who enters there still, and who beckons us to live into the new and even more true reality of life in the kingdom of God.

As we’ve watched yet again while communities struck by terror seek to grapple with destruction and death, I’ve noticed a beautiful and compelling response among these survivors, those in Brussels and Pakistan and Kenya and beyond. In word and in deed, one of their first acts of defiance in the face of death is to demonstrate their resilience, their choice to live and rebuild, their refusal to allow terror to defeat them. I am moved again and again by such courage, and I am struck by how deeply it resonates with the truths of resurrection we are celebrating this morning. This week I listened to a story about West African musicians forming a new band called the Bassam Collective, named for the site of a recent attack by Al Qaeda on the famed beaches of the Ivory Coast. Only 2 weeks after gunmen mowed down 19 civilians, these musicians gathered on the same spot to sing and dance and record a song. The song's title is French phrase which means “We’re Not a Bit Afraid.” These men and women sought out the very site of horror and bloodshed, and in that place made beautiful music that celebrates every good thing in life. I wept as I listened to this song two days ago. I wept because there was something in the music, in humanity’s resilience, in the power of courage to affirm the most fundamental realities of resurrection. No one can deny that weeks before the shoreline was host to lifeless bodies, murdered by men bent on terror. Neither do we deny that the horrors of Jesus’ crucifixion are real and echo the all-too-familiar oppression and violence that so many still face. But in the very midst of this death, the God of creation enters in and reminds us that new life is here and is yet coming. We do not yet know it in its fullness, though we ache for it. We have not yet glimpsed the whole story of resurrection, though we celebrate it. But we are a people who know that no matter the death that still lingers, Jesus proclaims life. We, like Thomas, are invited to press our hands into the wounds of Christ, to feel and sense and remember that he is one well acquainted with suffering and death. And in the face of such death, we are ones who have been caught up into life. We cannot guarantee that death will not find us. Like Jesus’ followers, we will want to hide behind locked doors for fear of the powers which we do not control. But let us hear the song of the West African musicians, people touched deeply by death but moved deeper still by another force. That force, that power is life. It is love. It is God. It brought Jesus out of the grave and calls us forward from the ones we find all around us. He is risen; let us rise up with him.

[1] Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, 2.

What is Spiritual Direction?

One of the greatest gifts I have ever been given was offered to me during my graduate theological training. As all prior notions of God and faith were deconstructed one by one, I desperately needed a safe space to navigate all that I was thinking and feeling. In a way I never had encountered before, my professors and leaders were not threatened by my questions, my doubts, my misgivings, but invited them into a larger conversation about and experience of the mystery that is God. This gift changed me. It changed everything. One of the primary reasons I am drawn to offer spiritual direction is because of the safe space it provides others to explore who God is and who they are in light of this.

Spiritual direction is an ancient practice of joining others in their exploration of God’s work in their lives and in the world. As a certified spiritual director, I come alongside another as together we seek to discern what God might be doing and saying in a particular season. This practice leads to an increased awareness of God’s presence and of self-understanding. Sometimes folks pursue spiritual direction as they face a difficult or weighty decision in their lives, desiring to follow the will and purposes of God. Others come because their experience and perception of the Divine is changing, and they simply need a safe space to explore this further. No matter what leads one to spiritual direction, my hope is that all will walk away with a deeper, more life-giving experience of God and God’s love.