The Sheep of God’s Pasture

Sermon for Sunday November 26, 2017, Christ The King Sunday

Ezekiel 34:11-16a and Matthew 25:31-40

Pastor’s Note: This is the recycled and updated version of a sermon I preached in April 2010 called One Flock, One Shepherd

Several years ago, my family and I attended the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park.  Along the path that winds around the park were hundreds of booths displaying the works of local and regional artists that were as splendidly colorful, refreshing, and mesmerizing as the spring day that enfolded us.

One of the artists’ booths that particularly caught our eye and prompted much smiles and laughter was entitled “Sheep Incognito.” The booth featured a large collection of whimsical, humorous and thought-provoking oil-paintings of sheep, each one with an outrageous title:

A sheep flying in a bumble bee suit: Bumble Baaaaa

A sheep in a gumball machine: Baabblegum

A sheep in a pickup, wearing a cap and smoking a cig: Billy Baab and his Truck

A sheep standing on a ladybug while holding two bales of hay in its hooves and a stalk of corn on its nose: Baalancing Act

And in a scene that is most appropriate for today’s scripture readings—A sheep, standing in a luscious green pasture near a clear blue lake, is gazing up at the magnificent sky with a sweet smile on its face. The painting is entitled Beside Still Waters, a reflection on Psalm 23. But it could easily be referred to as The Sheep of God’s Pasture, a nod to the illustration in today’s passage from Ezekiel.

The artist Conni Togel, who lives on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, says this about why she paints sheep for a living:

“They really are just sheep, even though you might recognize yourself or those you know in what you are seeing. Truth be told, sheep are messengers of insane moments around us, fun things awaiting us, and focal points of special things in life that often slip by unnoticed. What’s more, being the peacenik creatures they are, the sheep love being part of a greater cause: bringing some joy and whimsy back to a world that seems to be headed into all sorts of wrong directions…The sheep really are a vehicle for the message I hope to impart to the world around me. It is about hope, laughter, love, courage and just a smidgen of insanity—all the things in life that make life wonderful.”[1]

I love Togel’s view of sheep as symbols of hope, laughter, courage and a smidge of insanity because it’s a perspective that is not commonly shared in society. Sheep are not held in the same high regard as other animals, animals well known for their power, might, wisdom, cunning and loyalty like the eagle, the lion, the dog and the bear.  Whenever anyone asks the popular small conversation starter question, “If you could be any animal, what kind of animal would you be?” rarely do you hear a person say, “A sheep!”

The use of the word sheep carries a lot of negativity, a lot of wooly baggage.  No one wants to be described as “sheepish” because it means they are embarrassed or ashamed.  And no group of people wants to be labeled as sheep because it implies they are brainless conformists for whom passivity is a lifestyle.

To be referred to as a “sheep” is always an insult.  And if sheep knew they were misunderstood and could talk like humans, well, they might loudly proclaim that they’re getting the proverbial short end of the shepherd’s crook.

Sheep, of course, are not intelligent enough to communicate in the same degree as are other animals like the dolphin or horse. But they are a lot smarter and more interesting than they’re given credit. For instance, sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise when being handled. Sheep have horizontal slit-shaped pupils, possessing excellent peripheral vision; with visual fields of approximately 270° to 320°, sheep can see behind themselves without turning their heads.  Sheep do have poor depth perception; shadows and dips in the ground may cause sheep to baulk…but sheep have a tendency to move out of the dark and into well-lit areas.”[2]

 All sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock, and sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members. Sheep can recognize individual human and sheep faces, and remember them for years. And despite perceptions that sheep are dumb creatures, a University of Illinois study  on sheep found them to be on par with cattle in IQ, and some sheep have even shown problem-solving abilities.[3]

There are worse things a person can be compared to than sheep like a venomous snake or a cockroach.  And of all the animals chosen to describe human beings and their relationship to God, the one most often used is…a sheep. Throughout scripture, we are told again and again that God loves us and cares for us like a shepherd cares for the sheep—like a shepherd cares for the flock.

This image of God as the sovereign shepherd and God’s people as sheep has a permanent hold on Christian imagination and… piety, especially among ordained ministers (and elders). It is all too easy and common for preachers, like me, to see ourselves as those who have been trained at the very best religious institutions to “shepherd” and “pastor” a church, a “flock.”

While Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 25, among other texts, can be wonderful theological and practical lessons for how church leaders are called to be guides and caretakers, it’s important for all of us to remember that none of us are The Shepherd. Even when we as church leaders are trying to faithfully model our shepherding after Jesus’ preaching and teaching; we are still following Christ ourselves. We (church leaders) are also sheep and fellow members of the One Flock, and God in Christ alone is our Shepherd, and that is an extremely wonderful and humbling truth to behold.

This concept has particularly significance for us as we learn how to move forward and embrace God’s new vision for Pleasant Hill in the wake of founding and senior pastor Dave Fry’s last day as the church’s shepherd of 32 years.

While Dave gave us nearly a year in advance that his retirement was coming in mid November, there has been a decent amount of curiosity and anxiety (albeit mostly healthy) in the church: What will Pleasant Hill do without Dave? Who’s the Interim going to be? When are they getting here? Who will be called to serve as the senior pastor? How long will the search take?

So far, we’re doing well, which is not to say that the church doesn’t need a senior pastor.  As associate pastors, Jody, Jennie and I are completely capable of taking over some of the head of staff’s responsibilities, and yet we will be the first to say in January, “we’re so glad the church has an Interim Senior Pastor!”  And I know all of you will be equally excited to meet that new person who will help us through a time of transition and the eventual calling of a permanent head of staff.

What Dave’s retirement and absence is teaching me (and I hope the rest of us too) is that the One Flock of sheep, the Church Universal, keeps going no matter which ministers, elders, Christian Educators or church leaders are serving in a particular congregation.  The Church Universal keeps following The Shepherd even when folks leave the fold for whatever reason.

It’s true that a church’s staff and Session who oversee or lead ministries are called to use certain gifts for leadership and decision-making among the flock. But those folks are not the only shepherds nor is any one of them The Shepherd. The designated church leaders are not even the one flock, the Church, the larger body of Christ…not without the other members of the fold.

There are many members at Pleasant Hill who don’t have seminary degrees or master’s degrees or have not been ordained in the church that are faithfully leading, teaching, preaching, comforting, and nurturing the flock with the gifts God has given them. There are people doing extraordinary things among the fold even when one of the “shepherds” or church leaders is unavailable or busy with various church tasks. Ministry happens among the One Flock with, without and despite any one of us because of The Shepherd who leads all of us—who lays down his life for us so that we may live, love and serve abundantly.

The words of Ezekiel and Jesus help the church understand its role as God’s sheep and inspire the members of the one flock to do ministry. As one biblical scholar notes: “The calling inherent in this passage (from Ezekiel) is to do as God does: to care for the least, the last, the lost, and the excluded of society, out of a deep sense of love and compassion. This is a call that goes beyond the normal assumption that this pertains only to the pastor as shepherd; this image calls all in the church to minister to others.”[4]

We, who are nurtured by God like sheep under a shepherd’s care, are to live out a life that is keenly attuned to God’s presence in our midst. With sheep-like abilities we hear God’s voice, we see God’s face and we trust God will seek us out when we are lost, injured and weak and draws us from the darkness. And in return, we answer God’s command of us to minister to the broken and excluded people in society.

The command doesn’t come from a stern, tyrant king-like deity who seeks to condemn and torture our souls, but from a benevolent God who desires to nurture, rescue and protects us.

I realize that sounds odd when considering humanity’s long-held view of how a king or world leader should be. Those images of monarchy and dynasty and absolute power and prestige are engrained in our brains.

But the scriptures and our faith remind us again and again that God and Christ defy our expectations for how a leader should function.

Jesus is not a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time nor is Jesus like any crowned figurehead, dictator, world leader or president that has existed throughout human history.

Jesus is not a king who rides in on a horse, brandishing a sword or riding atop a tank, sporting a machine-gun as some renowned Christian preachers would have you believe. Nor is Jesus a bloodthirsty revenge seeking action hero or a ruthless drug kingpin as some aspects of pop culture depict him to be.

No, Jesus is the King of love and peace because Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our world and lives.

And this all-knowing, almighty, mysterious entity arrives not as a power-hungry, oppressive god seeking to wipe out sinners and evildoers.

But as a small defenseless child born into poverty—no less than an animal trough in the poorest part of town—and is visited first by sheep and shepherds.

The Child that grows into a man, who breaks bread with outcasts, heals the sick, and gives comfort to the prisoner.

The Man who does not dress up in regal clothes but who, as Matthew’s Gospel reminds us, appears as the hungry and thirsty person needing a drink; the stranger needing to be welcomed; the naked needing clothing; the sick needing comfort; and the prisoner needing a friend.

The Savior who presides over our lives and world not through acts of coercion and violence but through the supreme act of unconditional, selfless, suffering love.

The Ruler who builds a beloved community where all are welcome and compassion and love are freely and fully given.

The Shepherd who feeds, nurtures, rescues, protects and guides the flocks; and who calls each of us to do likewise for the least of these—the last, the lost, the despised and marginalized—all sheep of God’s pasture.

And all God’s people said: Baaaa—amen!

[1] Conni Togel, Sheep Incognito, http://www.charisma-art.com/

[2] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[3] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[4] Feasting on the Word : Preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4, Christ the King Sunday, Ezekiel 34:11-16, Karyn L. Wiseman

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Seeing The Face of God

A Sermon for Sunday August 6, 2017; Genesis 32:22-31 and Matthew 14:13-21

Shortly after graduating from seminary in 2005, American singer-songwriter and Grammy-award winning artist Tracy Chapman released the single, “Change”, a deeply moving song about what it would take for someone to make significant change in their lives. The song opened up my world to Chapman’s music and has helped inform my ministry for 12 years and counting. Ponder with me for a moment some of the lyrics:

If you knew that you would die today
If you saw the face of God and Love
Would you change?
If you knew that love can break your heart
When you’re down so low you cannot fall
Would you change?

How bad how good does it need to get?
How many losses how much regret?
What chain reaction
What cause and effect
Makes you turn around
Makes you try to explain
Makes you forgive and forget
Makes you change

When asked to discuss the song “Change” on The Tavis Smiley Show, Chapman said:

“Well, it’s a song that’s asking a question, really, about how do we make the best use of the life that we have… and how do we make changes that we often know we need to make but… for some reason can’t get around to it? And sometimes I think it’s extraordinary circumstances that kind of encourage people to get out of their day to day routine and do the thing that they know they need to do… Sometimes it’s love; sometimes it’s some sort of spiritual experience. … Sometimes it’s having something traumatic happen that really makes you see, ‘Oh, I need to adjust here and rethink my life.’”

A traumatic experience and extraordinary circumstances is precisely what leads Jacob to be changed.

When he is a teen, Jacob steals the family blessing meant for his older brother Esau and then runs away upon learning that Esau plans to kill him. Many years pass, and Jacob (now settled down in another land with a family of his own) yearns to make amends for deceiving Esau. Jacob sends a gift of animals to his brother in the hopes that he will be granted forgiveness. Esau sends a messenger back to Jacob saying that he is coming to meet him…with 400 of his men!

Concluding that Esau is still out for blood, a frightened Jacob asks God to spare him from death before sending more animals to appease Esau. Then that night Jacob takes his family to an area on the other side of the Jabbok River, presumably for safety in the event that Esau attacks while they are sleeping. And it is while Jacob is alone in the woods that a stranger appears and immediately wrestles him.

“Jacob Wrestling God”, illustration from The Holy Motion Story Bible. Published by Sparkhouse Publishing. 2017

The wrestling match between the mysterious man and Jacob lasts until sunrise, and afterwards Jacob asks his opponent to bless him. In doing so, the man tells Jacob: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”  The man seemingly disappears and Jacob names the site of the match Penuel saying, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.”

 

A few hours later, Jacob goes out to meet Esau, bowing down many times to show respect. In response, Esau runs toward Jacob and joyfully embraces him. Following a brief exchange, they go their separate ways with Jacob forgiven and at peace.

It’s a beautiful story, a testament to how encounters with God in the midst of the daily struggles of living can lead to redemption and transformation. Jacob experienced that “long dark night of the soul” over the divine call to reconcile with Esau; saw the face of God in the struggle; and was changed.

Like Jacob, many of us have wrestled with God into the wee hours of the morning—discerning the questions, problems, decisions and emotions that stir our soul.

We have wrestled with a God who draws not only us, but all people from the darkness of night into the dawn of a new day.

We’ve wrestled till our bodies were sore and our joints were out of place—marked with the painful and exhilarating truth that we can’t escape God’s call to practice reconciliation, mercy and love regardless of how hard we fight against it.

We’ve wrestled just as the disciples of Jesus once did when they were confronted with the dilemma of ministering to more than 5,000 people at sundown in a remote area.

The disciples were tired and emotionally drained. They were grieving the news that John the Baptist had been brutally murdered by King Herod, worried for their own safety, hungry, frustrated… and more than ready for all these flippin’ people to leave so they could go home, eat and sleep.

Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” the disciples tell Jesus, thinking he might respond with a yawn and say, “Ok fellas, you’re right. Been a long day. I’m exhausted too. Let’s go home, get some grub and go to bed. These folks can fend for themselves.”

But instead, Jesus replies: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” The disciples then hand five loaves and two fish, and per Jesus’ instruction, orders the crowds to sit down on the grass. Jesus then blesses the food and gives to the disciples to feed the people. And, according to Matthew’s gospel account, which we’ve heard read, “all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”

The disciples wrestled with Christ’s call to care for others; saw the face of God in the breaking of the bread and their feeding of the people; and they were changed.

When we wrestle, we come face to face with the living God who moves us to “make changes we need to make” and “get out of the daily routine to do the thing we know we need to do.”

Leaving our comfort zones and taking risks to help our neighbors who are suffering is a struggle. Patience and fortitude is needed if we are to hang on long enough to see God and be transformed by our encounter with the holy.

The high school youth and I have found this to be true during two separate mission trips we’ve taken with the DOOR Network over the last eight years. At one of DOOR’s five locations across the U.S., church groups Discover Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection by serving in various non-profits that assist the low income, the poor, the sick and the mentally and physically challenged; learn about issues in the community; and reflect on the experiences.

The DOOR Network’s motto is: “See the face of God in the city,” and at the end of each mission trip, volunteers are asked to share about where they saw God while they were serving during the week. In 2009, during our first trip with DOOR San Antonio (Texas), we were specifically sent out in our smaller work teams look for and interact with God for a half-hour.

That was a very exciting assignment for two of the three work teams whose destination was a large local park where there were a variety of God sightings: children playing games, families having a picnic, people walking their dogs, couples sitting on benches, artists painting the trees, and the homeless camped out on the far edge of the grounds.

But for the third team, who were told to walk down to the Texaco gas station and convenience store to find God, the undertaking seemed hopeless and lame.

Not even yours truly, an ordained pastor on his first summer youth mission trip at a new church, or Erik Mjorud, a long-time youth adviser and mission tripper who serves the “least of these” like most people breathe air, could manage to find the upside in the excursion.

How in the world would we see the face of God at the gas station? Gas stations are nothing like parks. Motorists slowly pumping gas. (Oh look, God buys premium.) Customers deciding whether to purchase a red or yellow Gatorade inside the store. (Cool, God loves red.) Fairly mundane tasks. And the thought of chatting up folks who were filling up their cars or shopping inside seemed awkward…and creepy. The scenario simply didn’t conjure up an inspiring example for Erik, four youth and I to bring back and share with the rest of the group.

“Ugh, a gas station,” we muttered as we proceeded to sit for nearly 25 minutes in the 98-degree heat on the sidewalk facing the pumps and the front door of the convenience store.

We were hot, tired, bored, antsy and irritable. Erik and I kept looking at each other and rolling our eyes as if to say, “When will this grueling chore be over?” We were wrestling with frustration over not being able to see the face of God and not having a story to tell the rest of the group. We felt like failures.

Then suddenly, as we were about ready to leave, a guy with dirty marks on his face, greasy hair, a scraggly beard and torn, stained, disheveled clothes walked from behind another building and crossed in front of us to go inside the store. We all exchanged wide-eyed glances. Erik volunteered to walk in and subtly find out the homeless man’s story.

A couple minutes later, Erik comes out and says to us: “Our homeless friend asked the clerk if he could give him a sandwich and some water. The clerk politely said he couldn’t help. I told him we might be able to do something.”  We pooled what cash we had in our pockets and gave to Erik who went back inside and bought God two sandwiches and a bottle of water.

This memory came to me about a month ago while three of our high school teens and I did mission work with two other church youth groups at DOOR-Atlanta. On our first evening, after dinner at Central Presbyterian Church, we were given bags of sandwiches, chips and water to distribute to dozens of people who sleep on the sidewalk outside of the building.

As we offered the food, we looked into each face—male, female; white, brown and black; young, middle-aged and old; a couple with cigarettes dangling from their lips, a few with cuts and bruises; some with wide smiles and toothy grins, and others with quiet demeanor—and we saw, to our surprise, the face of God staring back.

God always shows up in the most unlikely of places and people. We just need to open our eyes to see. Consider, for instance, this short video by Jewish filmmaker Meir Kay called “Eating Twinkies With God”:

In a description of the video on YouTube, Kay says:

“We don’t need to look far and wide for God. He’s in every one of us and in every thing that we do. Whether you believe or not, we all can agree that …each good act that we do makes this world a brighter place”

By seeing the face of God in others, especially the most poor and vulnerable among us, our minds and bodies are stretched and are eyes and hearts are open. We are changed, and we are forever determined to be the change for others—to be the body of Christ broken and spilled, remembered and shared.

We are reminded of this every time we come to the communion table and affirm that God is present with us in here and with all those out there whom we are called to serve with compassion. Presbyterian author and pastor Frederick Buechner (in his book Beyond Words) explains it this way:

To eat this particular meal together is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need not just for food, but for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters. The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, ‘Christ died for thee.” That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for thee. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee.”

Amen.

The Wonder of Wonder Woman

Warning: Some spoilers. Only scroll down if you’ve seen the new DC and Warner Brothers film Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot

I didn’t realize how much I had missed the wonder of an action-adventure  film until I saw Wonder Woman last weekend.

I’ve seen so many from the genre that have been amazing visually and had a decent plot, but not a one left me in awe and yearning to immediately see again and again and again (with a few exceptions like the original Star Wars Trilogy, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, Raiders of the Lost Ark;  Inception, The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

But after seeing Gal Gadot become the Amazon warrior princess for more than two hours, that deeply refreshing and magical sense of wonder returned after a long drought. I walked out of the theater wanting to be Wonder Woman or in the very least have the same moral fiber and abilities. My other beloved heroes like Han Solo, Aragorn, Batman and Captain Jack seem pale in comparison to Diana.

There is something about the character and Gal Gadot’s portrayal that seems more authentic than any other hero that has graced the screen. Wonder Woman is certainly larger than life and has the powers of a god/goddess. Yet she is also down to earth. She’s not bound by ego or seduced by power. Diana doesn’t use tricks or charm or beauty. Nor does she put on any pretenses. She just is who she is. And the attributes that make up Diana/Wonder Woman is the wonder we deserve…errr…need to continue to believe in everyday:

Diana has a dream and she is determined to attain it. As a girl, Diana desires nothing more than to become a great Amazon warrior and protector like her mother and aunt. She never shies away from the difficult training to become the best she can be. And she doesn’t let the doubts and worries of the other women on Themyscira distract her from achieving her dream. As an adult,   Diana also never doubts her own abilities or who she is called to be. She never has the “I can’t do this” moment and chucks her lasso and tiara like many male super heroes have thrown their costumes in the trash. Diana is also determined to get that sword and shield of hers through a revolving door.


Diana sticks to her convictions and stands up for what is right even if she is greatly opposed.

Diana challenges her mother Hippolyta often in the first half of the movie: she insists that Steve Trevor is a good man and that the women of Themyscira should help him and the Allies defeat the Germans in WWI; she further believes that the war-god Ares is the master behind “the war to end all wars,” and that it is their duty as Amazons to stop him. Later in the film Diana stands up to the Allied generals who refuse to stop Ludendorff’s plan to gas thousands of innocents. She also constantly pushes Steve and the mission team (Sameer, The Chief and Charlie) to make the time to help others and defend the defenseless. And there’s the iconic scene where Diana–tired of being told not to help the helpless on their arduous journey to Ludendorff’s base of operations–steps out of a trench and leads the charge (enduring a barrage of bullets and explosives) to overrun a hill and village occupied by German forces.

Diana is brave and courageous. 

The scene in the alleyway where Diana uses her bracelets to block the bullets meant for Steve Trevor. But more importantly…The Trench:

Steve Trevor: This is no man’s land, Diana! It means no man can cross it, alright? This battalion has been here for nearly a year and they’ve barely gained an inch. All right? Because on the other side there are a bunch of Germans pointing machine guns at every square inch of this place. This is not something you can cross. It’s not possible.

Diana Prince: So… what? So we do nothing?

Steve Trevor: No, we are doing something! We are! We just… we can’t save everyone in this war. This is not what we came here to do.

Diana Prince: No. But it is what I am going to do.

Nuff said.

Diana is confident and compassionate. 

Women often get mislabeled as being soft, particularly if they are showing compassion. Diana/Wonder Woman proves once again that women (like any human being regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation) can be both. Diana is not disarmed or rattled by the fears and worries of Sameer and Charlie and she doesn’t spiral into self-doubt about the challenges of their mission. She also never waivers once she is convinced that something must be done to help those who are in peril. And she doesn’t quit being Wonder Woman when tragedy strikes like the gassing of the village she had previously helped save. She becomes more resolute about ending the brutality of Ludendorff, Dr. Poison and Ares. For Diana, confidence and compassion go hand-in-hand.

Diana’s confidence and compassion makes her a loyal friend.

Diana shows sympathy to Charlie, who has experienced much brokenness and loss, and gives him encouragement. She reminds him of his value to their mission group. Diana also listens with an open mind and heart to the perspectives of Sameer and The Chief as they share their difficulties as men of color. Even though she is clearly the most powerful and the wisest, she doesn’t push Steve Trevor aside and take over. And at the same time, she also goes against his orders and follows her own heart, mind and convictions to do what is best for the group and the world.

Diana kicks ass… and it’s a work of art.

There’s just something breath-taking, elegant and even graceful about how Diana/Wonder Woman takes out her foes. It’s much like watching a beautiful dance instead of male heroes and villains trading punches and ramming their bodies through walls. No smack talk and bravado either. She just gets it done. Diana/Wonder Woman is #neverthelessshepersisted.

Diana shows mercy.

At a pivotal point near the film’s end, Diana has an opportunity to destroy Dr. Poison for the suffering and death she has inflicted on many lives, including those of children. Instead of seeing a monster, Diana realizes Dr. Maura is a victim of the cruel monster of war–personified by Ludendorff and Ares. Diana also decides that more destruction and death of human beings will not make a bit of difference and thus, she sets aside the giant tank aside she is about to drop on the doctor.

Diana believes in love.

It’s the moment all fans of the film have been talking about non-stop (aside from The Trench).  In response to Ares contempt for human kind and his question of Wonder Woman’s devotion to ordinary people, Diana says:

“You don’t get what you deserve. It’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.”

And then she promptly eradicates the darkness and evil of Ares with a ferocious and illuminating light.

Throughout the entire film, Diana/Wonder Woman has made a choice to believe in love and to shine light wherever she goes.

In the film’s final scene, Diana writes in an email to Bruce Wayne that she has learned the following about herself, humanity and her path ahead:

“I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves – something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know… that only love can truly save the world. So now I stay, I fight, and I give – for the world I know can be. This is my mission now, for ever.”

Gotta Keep Moving

A Sermon for Sunday, May 28, 2017. The Ascension of the Lord Sunday, Acts 1:6-12

The Ascension of the Lord—it’s a peculiar event, don’t you think?

Jesus, after being raised from the dead, spends 40 days hanging out with the disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. And then, whoosh! Up in the air he goes. Artists’ renderings of this scene are quite surreal and a bit ludicrous, as if aliens are beaming Jesus up. Whoowhoowhoop!

Jesus’ ascension is an episode that many preachers and churches avoid entirely during the church season because it is odd and difficult to grasp. It’s not grounded in the mud, spit and blood of life. It’s not as substantial as Jesus’ birth into poverty, his ministry among the sick and the poor and his brutal death. Even resurrection—the breath and heart beat returning to the body, the seemingly dead now come alive—is more palpable than ascension.

And yet as lofty and bizarre as Jesus’ ascension seems, it is what people of faith have sought to comprehend for thousands of years. Jesus’ ascension, his grand departure from the earth and his friends, is reflected in many of the stories we tell—stories that try to make sense of this epic moment:

Like Superman the man of steel, who often leaves the city of Metropolis and rises above to keep a watchful eye over humanity.

Like E.T. the extra terrestrial who tells the boy Elliott that he loves him and then boards his family’s space ship to return home to his planet in the stars.

Like Maui the charming demigod who embraces the young chieftain Moana with a hug and then leaves by transforming into a great hawk that soars off into the sky.

Like the zany Genie who, upon being freed from the lamp by Aladdin, zooms into the air and packs a suitcase for an adventure of his own choosing.

Like Mary Poppins the magical nanny who concludes that she has successfully brought a family back together and then, with a wink and a smile, flies away clutching her umbrella.

Ascension in those stories is about goodbyes, endings and beginnings, transition and change. And Christ’s ascension is all of those things and more—the shaping of Jesus’ glory as the one who conquered death and fear; the establishing of Christ’s rein above all worldly powers; and the fulfilling of God’s promise that human beings are in possession of and destined for a future brimming with hope in Christ’s mercy and love.

Naturally, it’s a lot to take for the disciples to take in and, understandably, they have anxiety about what is occurring before their eyes. With nervous excitement, they ask Jesus: “Is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The disciples know God is triumphant and yet Jesus, their friend, teacher and savior, is leaving them. They want to know what is going to happen and they can’t bare the thought of Jesus not being among them.

The disciples are likely wondering:

  Is Jesus going up for a few minutes to recruit an angelic construction crew before coming back to rebuild Israel?

    Is he going up in the clouds for a few hours for a period of prayer, rest and renewal before returning to end all of the world’s problems with a word or the touch of his hand?

When Jesus tells them they don’t need to worry about the time in which the kingdom of God will be formed, the disciples realize deep in their hearts that the Jesus they knew—the Jesus who preached and taught as they traveled dusty roads from one town to the next; who shared meals with them and healed and fed the despised and downtrodden—wasn’t coming back.

Their hearts ache with a truth they don’t want to accept. So they stare up in the sky, hoping the Jesus they knew will make a quick U-turn and re-enter their lives as before. They know time is marching forward but they’re not ready to do the same.

Sound familiar?

We don’t like to part with someone we deeply love and cherish (and move forward without them) anymore than the disciples, even when we know in our heart of hearts that it’s usually what is meant to be.

It’s why we get choked up or melancholy at the end of a movie or TV episode, when a main character we’ve grown to appreciate, bids adieu. Those stories remind us that nothing stays the same, that the people closest to us will one day leave and that change is inevitable, whether we enjoy it or not.

Of the multitude of viewing options available these days, no show embraces the concept of goodbyes and change better than the long-running international sci-fi hit Doctor Who.

 

For the non-Whovians out there, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, a humanoid alien known as The Doctor who explores the universe in his TARDIS—a sentient time-traveling space ship that appears as an ordinary blue British police box.

In 1966, after the show had been on air for three years, William Hartnell, the first actor to play Doctor Who, became very ill. So the show’s creators invented a plot device in which the character of The Doctor would regenerate or take on a new body and personality as a way of recovering from something that would kill an ordinary person. This allowed producers and writers to cast a new actor into the role without losing momentum in the breadth of the series.

Throughout the show’s run, 13 actors have played the role of the Doctor—all becoming beloved for the unique persona they brought to the character. But no matter how many times fans watch The Doctor regenerate and know that change is going to occur—that an actor you’ve come to enjoy will be replaced by one who is unfamilliar—they become a bit emotional.

That was certainly true for this fan and many others when Matt Smith exited the show as the 11th Doctor and Peter Capaldi took over as the 12th Doc in the final moments of the Dec 25, 2013 episode “The Time of the Doctor.” The 11th Doctor’s trusted companion Clara Oswald (played by Jenna Coleman) knows her friend and mentor is regenerating, but she can’t bear to see him go. And as he is transforming, The Doctor reminds Clara about the importance of change while also remembering his previous companion, the late Amy Pond:

            “We all change, when you think about. We are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s ok, that’s good, you gotta keep moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be,” the Doctor reminds Clara and viewers. And Clara, speaking on the audience’s behalf, says, “Please, Don’t change.”

Don’t change. Don’t leave.

Those words are imprinted on the disciples’ faces as they look longingly into the sky as Jesus ascends into the heavens. And they’d probably remain stuck there, fixated on the clouds for hours and hours awaiting Jesus’ immediate return, if the two angels hadn’t appeared.

The angels tell the disciples they have work to do and they need to get busy. Christ has chosen them to be witnesses of love and grace to the ends of the earth. There’s no time to gaze at the sky. The disciples gotta keep moving to share and embody the story of God’s love in the entire world.

So often, I think, Christians get stuck when significant change is happening, especially in the life of the Church. Many congregations struggle with saying goodbye to their long-time beloved pastors who accept a new call or retire. They struggle with saying goodbye to programs that are no longer viable or sparking joy.

They grapple with welcoming new leaders and visions for ministry. They have difficulty letting go because, in the words of Marie Kondo (the author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up) there is “an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

Most of you in this congregation know that we are in the midst of a process of letting go. As a way of honoring Dave Fry’s legacy as the founding pastor of 32 years and his retirement in November, we’ve embarked on a capital campaign–Gifted Past, Bold Future. The campaign’s purpose is to give gratitude for years of faith-shaping ministry as we strive to pay off the mortgage debt and make room for new ideas that will shape people’s lives.

And while Pleasant Hill is embracing the change, particularly Dave’s farewell, in a healthy way, I imagine there is still some anxiety among us. While we realize that Dave’s retirement is unavoidable, we don’t want him to go. We don’t want things to change.

A Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church without Dave Fry seems strange after decades of service. We know deep in our hearts that this church won’t quite have the same relationship with Dave as it does at this moment. Eventually, Dave will not be in his office every day or preaching from Sunday to Sunday or teaching classes or making pastoral visits or doing baptisms, weddings and funerals. Dave’s not ascending into the clouds, of course, but he will no longer be present among the congregation as he is now and has been for so long.

Like Clara Oswald, we might be in bit of a shock to see someone else in the head of staff role. And the new pastor, like the new (12th) Doctor, might be a little bewildered about how to “fly this thing” or operate Pleasant Hill.

But if we love God and treasure Dave’s ministry, we won’t be stuck in the past or resistant to change or looking off in the distance or leave the new pastor on their own to figure things out. Instead, we’ll answer Christ’s call to be the Church, to be his followers, to be his witnesses for love and grace for all people in every time and place.

And although Dave won’t be roaming these halls one day, and although Jesus is not physically present, we won’t truly be alone in our endeavors.

As Sirius Black tells young Harry Potter who laments never knowing his parents, murdered when he was a child: The ones who love us never really leave us, you can always find them in here.” (points to Harry’s heart)

Therefore, let your hearts not ache or be torn or anxious, for not too long at least. Dave will soon leave us with an amazing legacy to build on for many years to come. There is much to do and to experience as time goes onward. In the beautiful parting words of the hobbit Frodo to his best friend Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

         “You have so much to enjoy and to be and to do. (Your) part in the story will go on.”

Jesus has gone ahead of us, preparing for a future full of hope. And he beckons us to follow and to continue the story that God began–a story with many twists and turns. And Christ assures us that something inspiring is coming—like a mighty rushing wind and tongues of flame—to guide us as Christians and the Church on the journey ahead.

Therefore, we gotta keep moving.

Amen.

Meeting Jesus in the Mud

A Sermon for Sunday March 26, 2017 (The Fourth Sunday of Lent) John 9:1-17 and 24-41

One of God’s greatest gifts is…mud. Glorious, messy mud.

For many children, playing in the mud provides endless enjoyment.

Mud pies to serve at a party with friends—each delicacy decorated with pebbles, twigs and flower petals.

Mud puddles to stomp and splash in after a good thunderstorm—brand new rain boots spattered with artful gray streaks.

Mud creeks to explore for signs of tadpoles, minnows and crawfish—squishy clumps wedged between the toes in that cool water.

Teens relish moments romping in the mud too.

I have a fond memory from seven years ago when the high school youth from this church did mission work in Houma, La in July. Nearly every day there was an afternoon downpour.

By the middle of the week, there had been so much rain that a pool of water, a couple of inches deep nearly 30 feet in length had formed on our lodging site—a muddy oasis that had to be experienced by a group of teens who had worked hard all day doing construction work. They spent more than an hour running and sliding through the giant puddle, giggling and shouting the entire time.

Did you ever have those exhilarating experiences growing up? Do you remember what it was like to play in the mud as a kid and the unbridled fun you had?

Of course, there are also plenty of adults who don’t mind playing and working in the mud. On mission trips to Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic or even a couple hours away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s impossible to avoid getting filthy.

         After a long day of digging holes, carrying rocks, pouring concrete, laying bricks, building homes, adults—caked in a muddy mixture of dirt, cement and sweat—wear their grime as badges of honor.  I’ve seen many adults tease each other over who has worked the hardest by the amount of mud they have on their clothes.

There is something exhilarating and satisfying when we are covered in God’s earth, isn’t there?

In the book Dangerous Wonder, author Michael Yaconeli recounts how a friend did a one-man show on Jesus’ life in which he imagined Jesus and the disciples taking a break in the Jordan River after many days of travel and doing ministry. The scene plays out like this:

Jesus and the disciples were all in the river taking baths when the beloved   disciple,  John, reaches down to the floor of the river and brings up a huge mud pie. Preoccupied with their washing, none of the disciples notices. John takes careful aim at his favorite target, Peter. SPLAT! The mud pie strikes Peter in the face. John immediately ducks underwater as though he is scrubbing.

Peter reaches for his own mud pie, takes careful aim at Matthew and lets it fly. WHAM! James wastes no time responding with his own mud pie, and soon bedlam breaks out amongst the disciples. A full-fledged mud fight is under way.

 Philip and Bartholomew sneak up on Judas, whom they didn’t particularly like anyway, and nail him with two mud pies.

 Simon the Zealot…lets loose with a huge mud pie. John ducks and the mud missile hits Jesus right in the middle of his forehead. All the disciples freeze. After a long silence Thomas leans over to Simon and says, “You idiot! You just hit the Son of God with a mud pie…He’ll turn us into turtles!”

 Jesus gazes slowly at each of the disciples, each one fearing the worst.

With a knowing smile, Jesus stops when he sees Simon, who refuses to look Jesus in the eyes. Jesus reaches down into the mud and comes up with a very large mud pie and—BAM!—Simon is hit squarely on the top of his head, and as the mud slithers down his face, everyone, including Jesus, breaks into laughter.

During Jesus’ day, mud was a treasured substance that had many practical and enjoyable applications for daily living.

Mud was the prime building material people used to make things—jars, pots, plates, tools, ovens, art, tablets, roads, homes and other structures. Additionally, it was used to heal wounds on the skin or give relief to aching muscles, i.e. the mud facial and mud bath.

Now, as far as anyone knows, mud was not considered a cure for a more serious infliction like blindness.  But that doesn’t stop Jesus from mixing spit and dirt into mud and placing on the blind man’s eyes.

           Mud is an essential part of life and it is also sacred because it is of the earth that God created and formed out of darkness and brought into the light.  Thus, it’s no surprise that Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, uses mud to create something new, to give sight to a blind man who was born unseeing.

More alarming is the Pharisees’, the religious leaders’ judgment of the blind man and Jesus.  In spite of this extraordinary act of compassion, the Pharisees believe the blind man is a sinner from birth who is undeserving of healing and that Jesus is a heretic.

The Pharisees have become so self-righteous and full of absolutes and lofty ideals that they’re no longer grounded in God’s ways. They care more about their own status and prestige than getting their clothes dirty by helping their brothers and sisters in need.

The Pharisees have become completely detached from those they are called by God to serve.  They claim to be all knowing about God while ignoring the God who dwells with the poor, sick and oppressed, the Christ who is willing to get mud on his hands to show love to another human being. They’ve forgotten the beauty and joy of playing and working in the mud and being in relationship with others.

The Pharisees behave as no one else matters but them and their absolutes about how God works. And sadly our history shows there have been hard-nosed religious folks who’ve acted just as arrogantly and dogmatically ever since.

The late science historian and mathematician Jacob Bronowski commented on this egotistical behavior of some human beings in the 1973 BBC documentary Ascent of Man:

“It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”

Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, spits on the ground and makes mud with his own saliva and touches the blind man’s eyes. And minutes later, after washing his face in a nearby pool, the man is able to see for the first time in his life!

Christ’s actions are a reminder that we as his followers are supposed to touch people—to reach out and dirty our hands if necessary to bring love and life to someone else.  We as followers are called to meet Jesus in the mud.

And it will be clear and beautiful… if we have the eyes to see it

Amen.

The Messiness of Christmas

A Sermon for January 1, 2017. First Sunday After Christmas. Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-22

37036One of the Advent-Christmas traditions here at Pleasant Hill is to place this beautiful, porcelain made Nativity set on the communion table. These figures from Matthew and Luke’s gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are familiar to worshippers: Mary and Joseph, the baby, a shepherd, an angel and the magi. All the major players are here…except for one.

There’s no figure of King Herod—King Herod the Great who was appointed by the Roman Empire to rule over Judea, the country in which Jesus was born.

In the millions of interpretations of the Nativity in displays, greeting cards, paintings and children’s books that have been created over thousands of years, a depiction of Herod is not included. Cattle, sheep, camels, a donkey, a dog, a cat and even Santa Claus are added to the scene. But not Herod. The beloved hymns of the Advent-Christmas season don’t mention Herod either, except for two obscure carols, one written in the late 16th century and the other in 1911.

And yet he is an integral part of Jesus’ birth and early childhood.

The reason for Herod’s absence, of course, is obvious. He’s not a good guy and certainly no admirer of Jesus. Herod is, quite frankly, scared of the baby and the prospect that this child will one day overthrow his reign and become Israel’s ruler.

Herod is so terrified of losing his throne and power that he plots to murder the infant Jesus by sneakily asking the magi to let him know the baby’s exact location so he also may pay homage.

But his plan is thwarted when an angel of the Lord warns the magi to return home by another road and then tells Joseph to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. This, however, is not the conclusion of the story, although historicaly our retellings often end here.

After realizing the magi have tricked him and the baby who threatens his kingdom is not within his reach, Herod becomes filled with rage. “If I can’t have the one baby who will become king, I will kill them all!” Herod probably thought as he ordered his soldiers to murder all boys in and around Bethlehem who were between the age of infancy and 2-years-old.

And that image of children being slaughtered by a ruthless king is too much to comprehend. Genocide doesn’t fit neatly with the angels’ pronouncement of joy, the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, the star over Bethlehem, and strangers coming to worship the child.

Herod’s violence breaks our silent and holy night in which we celebrate the prince of peace on earth. Herod makes the celebration of Christmas messy and ruins one’s sentimental view of and desire for the holidays, which is not something many Christians like to consider. But we need Herod in the Christmas story in spite of his horrific actions or maybe because of them.

In her essay “Putting Herod Back in Christmas” Anglican priest and author Joy Carroll Wallis[1] puts it this way:

Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures. Herod has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so cozy. This is the Jesus who entered the bloody history of Israel, and the human race. …Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees and nobodies.”

Christmas, with its spirit of giving and message of incarnate love, peace and joy, certainly speaks deeply to our hearts and draws out our child-like sense of amazement. It sparks our imaginations and stirs our souls to do a lot of good in the world. But the events that occurred on that first Christmas reminds us that humans have the potential to cause a lot of mayhem.

Jesus is born into a broken and sinful world, in a time in which the Roman Empire controlled everything and Caesar proclaimed himself to be god-like. And from birth to death, Jesus encounters persecution by the Roman authorities and religious leaders who feel intimidated by his presence and the truth that he is the actual embodiment of God’s love among humanity.

Jesus shakes up the world and threatens the status quo. And that holy upheaval scares people who wish to cling to their own power, prestige and agendas. It scares them enough to lash out violently against “the other” whom God has created and to ultimately reject God’s love for human beings—especially the ones who are marginalized and viewed as unnatural and different.

Jesus not only rattles the people during biblical times, but his life, teachings and resurrection also frightens people today, including devoted, long-time believers. Can Christians then open their eyes to recognize and understand the messiness of Christmas and this birth in our lives and world?

Religious writer Matt Emerson[2] says it like this:

We are two thousand years from first-century Palestine, but the Incarnation is not like the Civil War. It is not simply an event from which we draw lessons. The challenge for moderns is to see the dynamics of Palestine within the human landscape of the human heart. Our inner life is one of clashing sects and regimes, of shaky alliances and diverse languages. A Herod hides in all of us. So does a Pontius Pilate. And a St. Peter. And a Mary. At one time we are the moralizing Pharisees; at another, the ruling Romans. Christ today must enter this territory. Will we prepare him room? It’s strange. And it’s difficult. Christ unsettles. Christ imperils…A mix of joy and confusion, happiness and worry. This is the first Christmas. Can we today recover some of its dramatic impact?”

Amid our joyful celebration of Christmas, can we connect with the upheaval that accompanies Christ’s birth? Can we admit that as much as we want Christmas time (and the days ahead) to be filled with peace and forever free of violence and heartache, the reality is that it’s not going to happen instantaneously?

Can we stop brushing aside the messy, hard-to-look at parts of Christmas and life so we can take a moment to see the pain of humanity instead of ignoring it and pretending that the atrocities around us bear no affect on our daily living and happiness?

Can we acknowledge the pain so that we might connect with the hurting, the oppressed, the outcasts and nobodies whom Jesus came to dwell among?

Can we see in the faces of babies, particularly those born in extreme poverty, the Christ child who was delivered in a musty stable to a poor peasant couple in the hub of Empire?

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Can we see in the faces of immigrants and refugees the family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus running for their lives under the cover of night to a foreign land to escape a bloodthirsty king?

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Can we see in the faces of innocent children and families of war-torn Aleppo, the fear and anguish of the children and families in Bethlehem who suffered genocide at the hands of Herod’s army?

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Can we see in the faces of the poor, the working class, the discriminated, the abused, and the broken, the God who dwells among the suffering?

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Can we see in the face of Herod, our own capabilities for destruction and know that God desires for us to act in the restorative ways of love?

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Can we witness as the magi did, the epiphany of God’s love in the world’s most broken places? Can we truly see the power of our Sovereign Creator who comes to be with us in human flesh and divine glory as a vulnerable, defenseless child?

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In a reflection on the scripture reading, Christian theologian David Lose[3] assures us that we can:

Sometimes life is beautiful and wonderful and filled with goodness and grace. And God is a part of that, giving blessing and celebrating with us and for us. And sometimes life is hard, gritty, disappointing and filled with heartache. And God is part of that as well, holding on to us, comforting us, blessing us with promise that God will stay with us through the good and the bad, drawing us ever more deeply into God’s loving embrace and promising that nothing—not even death—will separate us from God… God is working not only with the characters of this (Christmas) story, but also working through their triumphs and tragedies in order to work salvation in and for the world. God is likewise holding onto us through the joys and sorrows, working through the triumphs and tragedies that attend our lives—all to share the news of the salvation God has wrought in and through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.”

God is calling each of us to share the good news and help build God’s kingdom—a place where all are welcomed, redeemed and cared for in love.

God is calling each of us to do the work of Christmas, long after the carols have been sung, the decorations have been removed and the season has officially ended. Or as the late civil rights activist Howard Thurman said so profoundly in his poem The Work of Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken,

To feed the hungry, to release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers,

To make music from the heart.

             The work of Christmas is not easy. It’s hard, challenging, frustrating and tiring at times. It’s plain ole messy. That’s just how it is.

We take the fear, scorn and despair with the joy, wonder and hope. We take the bad with the good. We take Herod with the magi.

But the anguish reminds us that Jesus enters into a mess and the mess doesn’t overcome God-with-us; and the gloom reassures us that we’ve been made to endure messes and to get busy living out God’s love.

This is the first day of a new year, a new beginning. There’s a lot of messiness in this world and there will be a lot more. None of it will get cleaned up by itself.

So let’s get up and get to work.

Amen.

…………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

 

[1] http://liturgy.co.nz/church-year/herod-christmas

[2] http://www.americamagazine.org/content/ignatian-educator/terrifying-first-christmas

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2973

Reflections on “Waking Up White”: Chapters Two and Three

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Chapter 2: “Childhood In White”

In this chapter, Irving shares how her family valued the importance of being accomplished, staying busy, having a good attitude, being complaint free and restraining emotions (displays of anger, pride, sadness, anger, jealousy and fear) which conditioned her to become “deeply uncomfortable around people who exhibited any of the disapproved emotions, especially anger.” The emotional numbness, she writes, had “huge implications for racism” which she learned much later in life and will explore in an upcoming chapter.  She closes Chapter 2 with the question:

What values and admonitions did you learn in your family? Think about education, work, lifestyle, money, expression of emotions, and so forth. Try making a list of ten principles, values and unspoken beliefs. … Now consider what conclusions you drew about people who did not appear to follow your family’s belief system

  1. God is love and God wants us to love one another and be helpful, courteous, kind and merciful.
  2. Lying, cheating and stealing is wrong
  3. Save your money, don’t waste it like other people do
  4. It’s not like the good ole days where you can walk on downtown streets safely without getting robbed or shot
  5. Get a good education and job, follow the rules/behave and work hard to avoid laziness, poverty, digging ditches, drugs, crime, jail, being sent off to war
  6. Guns keep us safe and it’s our right to shoot someone in self defense if they break into our home or threatens us with violence
  7. The homeless aren’t interested in jobs because they refuse to do menial tasks like sweeping streets
  8. Democratic party and leaders on local, state and national level are crooked and not to be trusted
  9. There’s a difference between black people and the “n-word” (i.e. blacks who were poor and lazy, criminals, crooked politicians, political activists like the Black Panthers and foul-mouthed trouble makers like rappers and some comedians.)
  10. Gay is not normal and goes against God’s teachings in scripture

I didn’t draw any conclusions about people who didn’t appear to follow my family’s belief system because everyone around us held the same beliefs and values–relatives, neighbors, church members, and school teachers (all of whom were white). Spoken and unspoken.  I did, however, become quite paranoid and suspicious of anyone who was “other” unless they met the approval of the authority figures in my life. I also believed for a long while that certain places were more dangerous and violent because of the poor and people of color.

I never felt comfortable despising and hating people who were different than me and I always questioned the validity of several of the values and admonitions that were spoken, although I never dared to express them out loud.

Mostly, I was just scared and doubtful about the world and other people and surroundings that were foreign to me, and I sort of resigned to the notion that if I simply behaved and did what I was told, I would live a good and successful life and not have to experience any of the scary stuff of the world.

Chapter 3: “Race Versus Class”

Irving posits that both race and class are real issues that matter,and shouldn’t be pitted against another:

Trying to determine which one is the ‘real’ issue does a disservice to both. Concluding class is the real issue would give me permission to avoid thinking about race. Similarly, assuming race is the most significant issue overlooks the complications faced by white people caught in a vicious cycle of poverty. Both can trap people in a kind of second-class citizenship. If you can’t get the education you need to get a job to pay for healthy food, medical care, transportation, and a home in a neighborhood with good schools, then you can’t educate your children in a school that will prepare them for a job that will…and so on. Any cycle that traps someone in a state of perpetual disadvantage is the real issue for the people experiencing it. And yet race and class are inextricably linked….

Until I understood the impact skin color can have on one’s life, I wasn’t able to consider racism in combination with other factors that influence one’s culture. The culture that shapes people are breathtakingly complex when you consider all that goes into them. Era, geographical location, language, level of education, ethnic heritage, race, gender, sexual orientation, income, wealth, religion, health, family personalities and professions, birth order, hobbies and sports provide multiple variables that mix and match to create a unique culture in each and every family and each and every person. ..When it comes to culture, the only thing we all have in common is that we have one, and it shapes us….

Yet race stands apart from the variables listed above. Not only is race visible and permanent; it’s come to act as a social proxy for one’s value in American’ society. White has long stood for normal and better, while black and brown have been considered different and inferior. Social value isn’t just a matter of feeling as if one belongs or doesn’t; it affects one’s access to housing, education, and jobs, the building blocks necessary to access the great American promise–class mobility.

At the end of the chapter, Irving asks:

Class is determined by income, wealth (assets), education, and profession. Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director at Class Action, suggest these categories as a way of thinking about class: Poverty, Working Class, Lower-Middle Class, Professional Middle Class, Upper-Middle Class, Owning Class. How would you characterize your parents’ class? Your grandparents’ class? Your class as a child? Your class now? What messages did you get about race in each?

I would characterize my family as being Professional Middle Class–Like my parents, I grew up with a roof over my head in a suburban neighborhood (that was completely white), nice clothes, plenty of food, summer vacations to the beach, presents for birthdays, Christmas, Easter and even Valentine’s Day in addition to the occasional purchase of a toy or book during the year. We had access to public schools and could afford luxuries like dinner at a restaurant, a TV and cable (as well as the latest tech gadget), more than two cars, a swing set in our backyard, a yard and trees to play in, etc.

My paternal/maternal grandparents and maternal great-grandparents, having grown up during the Depression as Working Class, felt the desire to be more generous to their offspring as they moved into the Professional to Upper-Middle Class as adults. Both sets of grandparents regularly took us to the movies. Both grandfathers took us to UAB basketball games. My maternal grandparents took us to Atlanta Braves games and Six Flags less than a handful of times. They also owned a modest vacation house at The Still Waters Resort in Dadeville, Alabama where we would go for the weekend, usually for an Auburn Tigers football game 20 minutes away in Auburn. My paternal grandparents were in the Upper-Middle Class due to their business success in waste management services (and later other ventures) and thus were able to afford a condominium in Florida along with two charter fishing boats. We spent many summers on the beach and going deep sea fishing.

Granted, my younger brother and I never got everything we asked from our parents and grandparents. If we got a hole in our jeans, they got patched up. My brother got a lot of my clothes that I outgrew instead of new ones. We had to do chores and earn an allowance and save our money. Their was a strong belief in making purchases last until they went kaput, i.e. cars, appliances, furniture and so on.

Often we had to share our toys. Restaurant outings were special occasions, not a weekly or monthly splurge. (Although, we did have steak and potatoes almost every Saturday night growing up.) The only place we traveled to outside of Alabama was Florida with the exception of two trips my maternal grandparents planned:  A visit to Alberta, Canada for the Calgary Stampede and Wyoming for Yellowstone National Park when I was 11 and the California coast when I was 15 or 16.

We never lacked anything and we were taught to be appreciative of what we had and to not be greedy for more stuff. And yet, the message that members of my family relayed, directly and indirectly, was that people of color often couldn’t succeed because they weren’t willing to work hard, didn’t follow the rules, were greedy and unappreciative.  That notion always bugged me, even though I admit to believing it at times when I was a teen and young adult. I realized in college and beyond that this was a giant misconception.

Today, our family of me, my wife and our two children, 8-year-old daughter and nearly 3-year-old son, is Professional Middle Class. We have everything we need. We don’t have a second vacation home but we can afford to take trips every summer to the beach, go to the movies on occasion, have iPhones, iPads, laptop computers and maintain three cars. We’re privileged to have my mother-in-law live with us to help take care of our children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum and one who has some development delays. She helps cover costs for special needs therapy and provides for the family in other ways through retirement savings. Education and basic necessities are met every day and then some. We have a nice home in a suburban neighborhood that is tad more diverse than mine growing up.

I’ve realized from all of this that while a lot of hard work is responsible for our status and comfortable living, we have been privileged as whites to have the access to be in the Professional Middle Class. My family now and then has opportunities many people of color don’t have. I’m much more aware of that reality and that one’s lack of status or designation in a respectable class doesn’t mean people aren’t working hard or being good citizens or living good values.  And I don’t feel more deserving of what I have earned and been given than someone else who struggles to gain opportunities and needs they deserve and should be given.  

I hope I’m teaching my own children how to be aware of their privilege and also not judge others who are denied opportunities because of their race and class. And as they grow older, I also hope that I’m able to show them how to knock down racial and class barriers and work toward equity for the poor, the oppressed and cultures that have been denied many benefits from a majority white system.