Sabbatical Reading Reflections: Small Victories by Anne Lamott

I don’t know of a single author who writes with such raw honesty and vulnerability than Anne Lamott. Her razor sharp wit, fantastic sense of humor, incredible humility and self awareness of her own short-comings and ability to find God’s presence in the midst of life’s worse messes is both convicting and inspiring.  Her latest collection Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace is Ann at her utmost best. Each essay shines with truth about humanity and God. And the truth is not a perfect fluffy sentiment wrapped up in a pretty bow, but instead something more real and tangible that readers can grasp and see in their own lives.  A truth about our own failures and struggles and God’s grace that rises out of the midst of the ugliness to move us toward hope, love and life–even if it’s one difficult, begrudging step at a time.

The passage in the book which grabbed me by shoulders and forced me to look in a mirror pertained to Lamott’s thoughts on forgiveness. Upon realizing that she needed to forgive her father for writing disparaging remarks about her in a journal she discovered years after his death, Lamott writes:

People like to say, ‘Forgiveness begins with forgiving yourself.’ Well, that’s nice. Thank you for sharing. It does and it doesn’t. To think you know is proof that you don’t. But forgiveness sure doesn’t begin with reason. The rational insists that it is right, that we are right. It is about attacking and defending, which means there can be no peace. It loves the bedtime story of how we’ve been injured. The rational is claustrophobic, too. The choice is whether you want to stay stuck in being right but being free or admit you’re pretty lost and possibly available for a long, deep breath, which is as big as the universe, stirs the air around, maybe opens a window. …

You can forgo the arithmetic of adding up the damage again, lay your Bartleby ledger in your lap, and look up. Looking up is the way out. …Rumi wrote, ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and righting, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’ In that field, you’re under a wide swath of sky, so the story becomes almost illimitable, instead of two small nutty people with grievances and popguns. You have to leave your crate, though; this will not happen inside your comfort zone. But if you can make a break for the field, you might forget all the whys, the nuance, details, and colors about the story that you’re sure you’ve gotten right, that doom you.

So you sacrifice the need to be right, because you have been wronged, and you put down the abacus that has always helped you keep track of things. This jiggles you free from clutch and quiver. You can unfurl your fingers, hold out your palm, openhanded…Forgiveness is release from me; somehow, finally, I am returned to my better, dopier self, so much lighter when I don’t have to drag the toxic chatter, wrangle and pinch around with me anymore.

For the last month, I’ve been dragging my toxic carcass of anger, sadness, irritability, self-righteousness and depression everywhere because I have felt wronged by a good friend. I’ve been quite a pitiful and sorry sight and not at all my more goofy, humorous, loving self.

And it’s not that I don’t have a right to feel angry and sad or share those feelings honestly and calmly. Those emotions are certainly justifiable. However, as my wife pointed out this evening, I haven’t moved (or worked) through those feelings in four weeks. I’ve let them imprison me in a terrible funk of inner rage, resentment, and doubt–consuming every breathing moment and preventing me from enjoying life, particularly my family and friends.

My hope, especially when I have a conversation with that friend this month, is that I can make a faithful attempt to set aside rationality and an insistence on being right, put the ledger away, look up and hold out my palm open handed.

May the unfurling begin.

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: Kid President’s Guide To Being Awesome by Brad Montague and Robby Novak

safe_image.phpOf all the movers and shakers and dreamers in this world, the one that has influenced me the most over the last few years (who happens to not be a renown politician, entrepreneur, entertainer, athlete, scientist, author and social activist ) is 11-year-old Robbby Novak, aka Kid President, “self-appointed voice of a generation.”  Along with his brother-in-law Brad Montague, Kid President strive to make the world more awesome through creative, inspiring videos, blog/social media posts, and now their New York Times best-selling book: Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome (which features numerous ideas on how to be awesome; illustrated transcripts of the videos and interviews with kids and adults who are making a difference in their  communities) Robby’s philosophy and outlook on life comes straight from the heart of a ridiculous, charming, silly, loving kid who sincerely wants people to embrace their awesomeness and “treat everybody like it’s their birthday.”

11046952_511758008964852_4478923496441481174_nThere is not an ounce of naiveté or empty platitudes within the pages of the book or the videos. Robby is not a kid who looks at life with rose-colored glasses. He sees the hurt in the world, and knows intimately about pain and agony and disappointment . And yet, despite his personal health struggles, Kid President is determined to spread love. “As human beings,” we are capable of lots of bad stuff,”he says, “but also cupcakes.”

In the “Who We Are” section of the blog, Brad explains the origins of Kid President and the desire he and Robby have to change things for the better:

We created our first Kid President video in July of 2012 out of the simple belief that kids have voices worth listening to. Never did we imagine our journey would take us the places it has. Who knew a little can and string could connect you to everyone from bestselling author Nick Hornby to actor Rainn Wilson or to the President of the United States?

We’re doing this because we believe kids can change the world. We also believe grown ups can change the world. It just takes all of us working together.

The idea for Kid President came a few years ago. My wife and I started a camp for kids who want to change the world, GO! Camp. We were blown away by the ideas and the hearts of the students there. These students wanted nothing more than to leave the world better than they found it. After seeing their creativity and compassion I couldn’t help but think – wouldn’t it be cool if we listened to kids more?

Robby, age 10, is my little brother-in-law. He’s full of life and ideas. Robby has Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) a brittle bone condition which has resulted in him having over 70 breaks since birth. What’s inspiring about Robby isn’t his condition, but the fact that his condition doesn’t define who he is. In spite of all he’s been through he not only keeps going – he dances.

The two of us work on each episode together. There’s no fancy film crew or staff. It’s just us having fun and hoping we create something that makes people happier than they were before they clicked play. Our hope is that each episode is received with the same love that started this whole adventure.

As Kid President says, “Love changes everything. So fill the world with it.”

Brad says in the book’s introduction that Kid President is a joyful rebellion:

The best moments are fueled by a joyful vision of what could be. There’s the way things are in the world, and there’s the way things could be…A joyful rebellion is you living differently not because you’re mad at how things are but because you are swelling with joy at the thought of how things could be. When you joyfully rebel against your circumstances, against mediocrity or negativity, you invite others into something really beautiful.tumblr_nkr1nsgu2B1qdpc8po1_1280

Even though he has adopted the moniker of Kid President, Robby isn’t trying to aspire to be President Obama or any other politician (today or in the past). He’s not asking for charity or looking for fame and power. He just wants to convey a simple and profound message that each and every person is loved and that folks are capable of showing love and using their gifts to do something extraordinary together (words that are echoed in Jesus teachings of a better way for humanity).

What might the world look like if we shed our fear of and anger at those who are different from us and learned to joyfully rebel and envision (and dare I say live out) how things could be? 

What might the world look like if we set aside the things that distract us and engaged with one another more, worked with one another more to follow our collective passions and build something beautiful and good?

What might the world look like if we made more time to say, “I forgive you,” and “I’m sorry,” and “You can do it”? What might the world look like if we were more compassionate and less hurtful in our words and actions?

tumblr_nlo971X3ko1rav3clo1_1280What might the world look like if we took more time to dance, to share corndogs and “treat everybody like it’s their birthday”?

If we did those things, maybe there would be less suicides among LGBTQ teens, less discriminatory laws , less threats of violence, less racism toward blacks and other minorities

So what are we waiting for? Like Kid President says, “This is life people. You got air coming through your nose; you got a heartbeat. That means it’s time to do something.”

Let us do something

Let us dance and joyful rebel 

Let us counter hate with love

Let us be heroes who change the world 

Together. Always together.

 

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: The Bible Tells Me So and Disquiet Time

Product8677_Photo1Although I’m a 39-year-old progressive Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor serving a moderate to progressive church in a mostly progressive denomination, I’ve encountered–since I was a middle schooler–church folk (including Presbyterians) who have staunchly believed that the Bible is a infallible rule book that is not to be questioned…ever. And to question the Bible is to question God and to question God is to permanently seal your fate in hell or in the very least incur God’s disappointment and anger.  As Peter Enns, religious scholar and author of The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read Itputs it:

Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual–follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force. If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to ‘defend the Bible’ against these anti-God attacks. Problems solved. That is, until you actually read the Bible. Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag–fine as long as its kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes.

Youth advisers and pastors whom I respected during youth and young adulthood echoed this sentiment in their own teaching, preaching and nurturing of my faith and belief in God, especially when other Christians tried to use the Bible to scare people into believing (which is not what Jesus ever had in mind when he walked the earth), i.e. the popular televangelists preachers of the 1980s in which I grew up or the fundamentalist Christian college students who descended upon my friends and I at our church’s Presbyterian camp at the beach in an effort to convert us.

While I knew this staunch defense of the Bible, God and faith was dangerous, I never felt I had the ability to express exactly why this way of thinking was harmful, bad theology that reduced God to a cruel and judgmental dictator.  Other than saying, “God is love,” I lacked the tools to full understand the larger context of the Bible: the ancient Israelites who lived in that ancient world thousands of years ago and their experience of God and of learning to live a life in faith to only one God, the creator of the universe and father of Abraham, Isaac, etc. I couldn’t counter the misconceptions (based on fear and a need to control) with deeper knowledge about the scripture passages, when they were written, why they were written and what they were intended to say to people of the time.  

This changed when I entered Columbia Theological Seminary at the age of 27 (way back in 2002). In the classrooms of Walter Brueggemann, Christine Yoder, Beth Johnson, Charlie Cousar, Stan Saunders, Mark Douglas, Shirley Guthrie, George Stroup, Bill Harkins, Chuck Campbell, Anna Carter Florence, Rodger Nishioka, Kathy Dawson and Erskine Clarke (just to name a few) I learned how to articulate what I always instinctively felt and believed about the Bible and God’s role in the text and human history:

The Bible is the messy and incredible story of God and humanity told by an ancient people whose message echoes throughout time and in our lives today. The Bible is the story of God’s love and grace that enters over and over and over again into human mess. God creates. Humans destroy. God calls people to create beautiful things (relationships, communities, lives). Humans reject the call. Contaminate and corrupt God’s gift of creation and misuse the gift to create by wielding hate and violence instead. God loves. Humans try to love and some succeed. But mostly they fail. God loves and loves some more. Humans fail. God keeps on loving and calling and encouraging humanity to trust in the Divine and live as people of the divine in their treatment of one another and the world they inhabit. Humans succeed in long moments and in spurts. God loves so much that God-self becomes flesh to show humanity that creativity, imagination, mercy and compassion is always the better way–better than desires to judge, control, manipulate, horde, and act recklessly with our own lives and the lives of others.  

The Bible is inspired by God and written by fallible human beings whom God loves unconditionally. God in Christ remains faithfully involved in people’s lives despite their mistakes, including the discrepancies and errors in their stories, experiences and interpretations of God. It is true for the ancients of the Bible and true for us crazy human beings today. 

Like my professors in seminary and my church mentors growing up, Enns’ book helped me once again to shape what I already knew to be true about the Bible but sometimes have difficulty expressing, particularly the violent, strange and contradictory texts.

End reminded me once again that the Bible’s purpose is not to provide safe and simple answers that solve all of life’s problems:

God did not design scripture to be a hushed afternoon in an oak-panel library. Instead, God has invited us to participate in a wrestling match, a forum for us to be stretched and to grow. Those are the kind of disciples God desires…When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey. That journey was recorded over a thousand-year span of time, by different writers, with different personalities, at different times, under different circumstances, and for different reasons…

This Bible, which preserves ancient journeys of faith, models for us our own journeys. We recognize something of ourselves in the struggles, joys, triumphs, confusions and despairs expressed by the biblical writers. Rather than a rulebook…the Bible is more a land we get to know by hiking through it and exploring its many paths and terrains. This land is both inviting and inspiring, but also unfamiliar, odd, and at points unsettling–even risky and precarious. 

I believe God encourages us to explore this land–all of it–patiently, with discipline, in community, and above all with a  sense that we , joining the long line of those who have gone before, will come to know ourselves better and God more deeply by accepting the challenge. ..We respect the Bible most when we let it be what it is and learn from it rather than combing out the tangles to make it presentable.

And, I might add, to judge others, to use the Bible to determine who is in and out of the church, who is not allowed in heaven or who is not deserving of God’s love.

Enn delves further into how the Bible can be so much richer for cultivating authentic faith when we allow the Bible to be what it is instead of trying to make its most violent parts behave or adhere to our justifications for God’s wrath and why we think God would be ok with all sorts of violence today.  With great knowledge and respect for scriptures and wily sense of humor, Enns tackles the violent and strange and contradictory passages of the Bible head on. Instead of taming the Bible or locking it in a cage, Enns takes readers on an exploration of this wild living thing that breathes and moves across the landscape of the ancient and post-modern. 

49827In their collection of essays, Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani, encourage “Bible-loving Christians, agnostics, skeptics, none-of-the-aboves and people who aren’t afraid to dig deep spiritually, ask hard questions and have some fun along the way,” to not shy way from having Disquiet Time with the Bible.

Essays written by the “skeptical, faithful and a few scoundrels” explore difficult, bizarre and (sometimes humorous) texts that stir up questions and cause discomfort and confusion for readers, like grotesque violence, plagues of frogs, the trippy vision of Revelation, the role and treatment of women, sexual innuendo, angelic body parts, and all the poop references.

Whereas Enns takes readers through a process of how to approach the Bible as a sacred object that doesn’t needed to be defended but to be wrestled with,  Grant and Falsani offer up voices of those who have stepped into the ring with the weird and formidable stories of the Bible.

Admittedly, I haven’t read the entire collection. Only the first nine essays because I’ve been distracted by other books on my sabbatical reading list. I’m realizing now that Disquiet Time is the type of book that doesn’t need to be read orderly from front to back and is actually better enjoyed when you flip to any essay when your own soul is feeling disquieted by the Bible, faith, God or the world in general. (Take a moment to peruse the global, political and entertainment news and you’ll immediately find some disquieting things).

The essays are exposing me to voices I need to hear and I’m in awe of their vulnerability and honesty as they share how particular texts have befuddled, angered, surprised or given comfort to them. To metaphorically see them struggle with disquieting texts to find meaning gives me courage to grapple with glowering behemoths like Genesis 16, Ruth 3, Ecclesiastes 9, and Deuteronomy 23. 

And the most important lesson I’ve learned thus far is that the Bible is full of crap (Deuteronomy 23:12-13; 2 Kings 9:36-37; Exodus 29:12-14, Ezra 6:11, among others) and God is wading in the muck right along with us.

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: Dear White People by Justin Simien

Dear White People is one of the most important films of this day and age, and one of the best films of 2014. It was also snubbed by the white-centric Academy of Motion Pictures during Oscar time.  But, dear white readers of this blog, that doesn’t mean you have to snub it or the book which is equally wonderful and powerful companion piece of art. 

Justin Simien infuses the book, Dear White People: A Guide to Inter-racial Harmony in “Post-Racial” America with the same biting satire and wit that is found in his ground-breaking debut film. It’s the actualized version of Sam White’s commentary on her underground radio station at the fictional (but realistic Ivy-league) Winchester University. 

The book is a laugh-out-loud, thought provoking and convicting read. Although I have become more aware of my own prejudices and racist attitudes, this book shed more light on my whiteness and the privilege of my skin.  I was immediately taken aback by a paragraph in Simien’s introduction:

For black folks, being stereotyped is nothing new, but it typically can have a very real impact on their daily lives, even when it comes in the form of well-meaning gestures and questions from their white friends or colleagues like, “As a Black Person, why do you think people talk back to the screen in movies?” These are called “microagressions.” It’s not lynch-mob racism, but being spoken to or even treated in a kind way because of an assumption about your race by a member of a race that on the whole has cultural, political and economic control can feel unsettling.

This is one of many microagressions that I commit in my thinking or in conversations with other whites, and an assumption that, well, plainly put, makes me an ass for having such thoughts.

Amid the clever and humorous quizzes and charts where one can seriously discover microagression translations; determine whether you are “tokening your black friend”; and discern when it’s the right time to wear Blackface (ummm…never);  there are passages that hold the mirror of my racism up against my nose.

The section of the book that struck a deep chord with me was the chapter “Please Stop Touching My Hair,” in which Simien breaks down the racist implications in white people’s fascination with black people’s hair:

A white co-worker might wonder with admiration, no less, how a black woman can come to work with a Halle Berry-style pixie cut one day and a shoulder-length blow-out the next. “How does she do it?” this hypothetical white coworker might say motto voce. And while that’s a fair question, using your fingers to find the answer will only ensure that Sheryl in accounting will stop inviting you to lunch…

For some black people, being asked for permission to have their hair touched or, worse yet, having it touched by surprise elicits a visceral negative reaction. We can’t help it. According to the theories of Carl Jung…all of us have powerful genetic memories going back to our ancestors. Do not be surprised if a black person responds to a request to touch their hair by defiantly yelling out, “I AM KUNTA KINTE!” They are subconsciously recalling that scene in Roots where Geordi from Star Trek is being poked and prodded by a slave trader. Thus is the nature of genetic memory, probably.

tumblr_n971hrX0Tl1r8jjn6o1_500-1423262633Even if images from made-for-TV slavery stories aren’t the first things that come to mind for the person on the receiving end of all of this curiosity, the feeling of being on display at, say a petting zoo isn’t one anyone would want to feel at work, home, or play. Adding adorable phrases around the request doesn’t help either. Whether you’re saying, “Wow, that’s beautiful; may I?” “Your little naps are so cute!”; or “Lower yo’ head, boy, so Massa can inspect you,” it all comes across, more or less in the same way. There are, of course, some notable exceptions to this rule. In intimate relationships, for instance, it is natural.

The reason why this resonated–why I suddenly “got it”–is because of an incident that occurred about eight years ago at a Presbyterian Middle School Youth Conference in Virginia. A black seminary classmate, friend and fellow conference leader, shaved his head three days into the event. I and another friend (a white female and also a seminary classmate and conference leader) were so fascinated by his new look that we enthusiastically ran up to him and rubbed his head. Rightly so, he got angry and snapped back at us: “Don’t ever touch my head!” I remember feeling a sudden sense of guilt because I was unexpectedly scolded and also because I knew I’d done something wrong, although I wasn’t sure why. In the moment, my other friend and I thought he was being over-sensitive and we chalked it up to him just needing space or being tired/moody at that particular moment (which all of us get at conferences due to long hours, lots of high energy activities and little, little sleep).

But now I understand that what we did was wrong. We treated him like he was something on display, a pet at a petting zoo. This microagression (or maybe it was closer to a macro one) was even worse in the context–an all white conference in which he was the lone person of color. Although we didn’t realize it, our desire to rub his freshly buzzed head was racist. When I first read Simien’s words, I attempted to justify my actions, thinking that “Well, surely I would’ve rubbed the buzz cut of a good white friend who had shaved their head because a) it’s so dramatically different and b) buzz cuts feel cool. And maybe I have or would have. But a) that’s kind of creepy even if it’s a good white friend and b) the action doesn’t erase the fact that it’s wrong and racist to do that to a person who is black.  It’s a personal domain that shouldn’t be invaded and no one’s head, regardless of race and especially because of their skin color, should be on display for white hands.

To my friend, I’m sorry for violating your personal space and for offending you. And I lament that it took me this long to realize my wrongdoing.

The irony of this convicting book (which should also be read alongside the incredibly insightful But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow) is that white people shouldn’t need black people to educate them about their humanity as Simien expresses with a quote from Audre Lorde:

When Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity…the oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves…

And yet, at the same time, if I didn’t get the education I’d never be aware of my sins and shortcomings and be motivated to change for the better. I suppose the difference with me is that  I don’t expect other black people to educate me, but am open to the views of people who are different (race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, etc.)—views  and voices that will reshape my heart and understanding of the world I live in so I can be a better participant in it. So I can take responsibility for my own actions and find an alternative and non-oppressive position in which to stand.

This book has affected my perspective in ways that other books haven’t.  From sections on black myth busting and a deconstruction of the idea that we a post-racial society, I am seeing with new eyes.  Simian’s voice and art is to be treasured.

My Sabbatical Reading List

While a sabbatical is a blessing, it’s also a personal challenge to figure out exactly what I’m going to do with this gift of renewal. I‘m planning to hear Andrew Root speak in Decatur later this month and attending The NEXT Church Conference in Chicago in March, but those events obviously don’t fill up the entirety of my time away. I will make opportunities along the way to exercise, encounter different worship experiences, participate in Lenten practices, work on keynotes for Montreat Youth Conferences, and hang out with the wife and kids. But I still need a daily practice that keeps me immersed in sabbath reflection, creativity and visioning of my ministry and my service to God and the Church Universal. So I’ve come up with a list of books that I’m hoping to devour and contemplate on this blog between now and April 2. (The synopsis of each book comes from their description on Amazon.com):

Product8677_Photo1

The Bible Tells Me So chronicles Enns’s spiritual odyssey, how he came to see beyond restrictive doctrine and learned to embrace God’s Word as it is actually written. As he explores questions progressive evangelical readers of Scripture commonly face yet fear voicing, Enns reveals that they are the very questions that God wants us to consider—the essence of our spiritual study.

49827The Bible is full of not-so-precious moments, from murder and mayhem, to sex and slavery. Now, an incredible cast of contributors tackles the parts of the Bible that most excite, frustrate, or comfort. Disquiet Time was written by and for Bible-loving Christians, agnostics, skeptics, none-of-the-aboves, and people who aren’t afraid to dig deep spiritually, ask hard questions, and have some fun along the way.

3979da2042813af312594b0ba83ff63aAnne Lamott writes about faith, family, and community in essays that are both wise and irreverent. It’s an approach that has become her trademark. Now in Small Victories, Lamott offers a new message of hope that celebrates the triumph of light over the darkness in our lives. Our victories over hardship and pain may seem small, she writes, but they change us—our perceptions, our perspectives, and our lives. Lamott writes of forgiveness, restoration, and transformation, how we can turn toward love even in the most hopeless situations, how we find the joy in getting lost and our amazement in finally being found.

 

2Q==“This is LIFE, people! You’ve got air coming through your nose! You’ve got a heartbeat! That means it’s time to do something!” announces Kid President in his book, Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome. From YouTube sensation (75 million views and counting!) to Hub Network summer series star, Kid President—ten-year-old Robby Novak—and his videos have inspired millions to dance more, to celebrate life, and to throw spontaneous parades.

In his Guide to Being Awesome, Kid President pulls together lists of awesome ideas to help the world, awesome interviews with his awesome celebrity friends (he has interviewed Beyoncé!), and a step-by-step guide to make pretty much everything a little bit awesomer. Grab a corn dog and settle in to your favorite comfy chair. Pretend it’s your birthday! (In fact, treat everyone like it’s THEIR birthday!) Kid President is here with a 240-page, full-color Guide to Being Awesome that’ll spread love and inspire the world.

4ec4a8441f6a2273abecd846c92c76d5Despite the divorce statistics, people are still committing to each other, instinctively believing and hoping that theirs is a sacred union that will last forever. Yet when these couples encounter problems, they often lack the resources that keep them connected to this greater mystery surrounding marriage.

Rob and Kristen Bell introduce a startling new way of looking at marriage, The Zimzum of Love. Zimzum is a Hebrew term where God, in order to have a relationship with the world, contracts, creating space for the creation to exist. In marriage, zimzum is the dynamic energy field between two partners, in which each person contracts to allow the other to flourish. Mastering this field, this give and take of energy, is the secret to what makes marriage flourish.

9k=With decision-making trees to help you decide when it’s the right time to wear Blackface (hint: probably never) and quizzes to determine whether you’ve become the Token Black Friend™, Dear White People is the ultimate silly-yet-authoritative handbook to help the curious and confused navigate racial microaggressions in their daily lives.

Based on the eponymous, award-winning film, which has been lauded as “a smart, hilarious satire,” this tongue-in-cheek guide is a must-have that anybody who is in semi-regular contact with black people can’t afford to miss!

march_book_two_72dpi_lgJohn Lewis, an American icon and one of the key figures of the civil rights movement, continues his award-winning graphic novel trilogy March, Book 2 with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, inspired by a 1950s comic book that helped prepare his own generation to join the struggle. Now, March brings the lessons of history to vivid life for a new generation, urgently relevant for today’s world. After the success of the Nashville sit-in campaign, John Lewis is more committed than ever to changing the world through nonviolence – but as he and his fellow Freedom Riders board a bus into the vicious heart of the deep south, they will be tested like never before. Faced with beatings, police brutality, imprisonment, arson, and even murder, the movement’s young activists place their lives on the line while internal conflicts threaten to tear them apart.

Unknown-1In this mind-bending exploration of traditional Christianity, firebrand Peter Rollins turns the tables on conventional wisdom, offering a fresh perspective focused on a life filled with love.

Peter Rollins knows one magic trick—now, make sure you watch closely. It has three parts: the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige. In Divine Magician, each part comes into play as he explores a radical view of interacting with the world in love.

Rollins argues that the Christian event, reenacted in the Eucharist, is indeed a type of magic trick, one that is echoed in the great vanishing acts performed by magicians throughout the ages. In this trick, a divine object is presented to us (the Pledge), disappears (the Turn), and then returns (the Prestige). But just as the returned object in a classic vanishing act is not really the same object—but another that looks the same—so this book argues that the return of God is not simply the return of what was initially presented, but rather a radical way of interacting with the world.

As God’s Chosen

A Sermon for Sunday January 18, Colossians 3:8-17, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church (Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend)

Screen shot from the music video "Same As It Ever Was (Start Today) by Michael Franti, December 2014. From Google Images.

Screen shot from the music video “Same As It Ever Was (Start Today) by Michael Franti, December 2014. From Google Images.

Intro:  When news outlets reported in early December that a New York grand jury decided not to indict police in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, popular hip-hop-reggae artist Michael Franti immediately wrote the lyrics to Same As It Ever Was (Start Today). And in less than two weeks, he recorded the song and filmed a 4-minute music video. I would like to show you the video to open the sermon, but first I want to let you know that it contains some images of white police brutality toward blacks over the last five decades—including the death of Eric Garner—which may be difficult to watch. Of course, the subject of race is never easy to talk about; it stirs up many emotions for people. People are at odds over the grand jury’s decision to not indict officers in both incidents. And not everyone agrees that Garner’s death or the incident between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown in Ferguson was racially motivated. But matters of race can’t be ignored completely when it is clear that views regarding discrimination are almost evenly split between whites and blacks. In a predominantly white congregation such as ours, it’s important that we discern and pray about such issues of justice. Please know that neither the video nor the sermon is an attempt to disparage our brave men and women who have sworn to serve and protect our communities. It is merely an opportunity to “touch hearts, make people think and be moved to work for change” because we could all do better[1]:

Prayer:  Will you pray with me? ….May the words of my mouth and the meditation of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God the harbinger of justice, peace and love. Amen

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Same as it ever was/There’s gotta be a better way/It’s the same as it ever was/But today is a different day/You and me could make that change/But it’s the same as it ever was/We better start today             An activist for peace and social justice issues, Franti said in an interview[2]:

My intention for the song was to give voice to feelings that many of us are going through right now and to offer a starting place for friends, family, school classes, and workplaces to have dialog about the issues surrounding police killing of unarmed African American men, police/community relations, the justice system and where we all go in the future. The song is not an indictment against all police officers or departments. I have friends, fans and family members who are honest, fair, hardworking people who do a job everyday that’s much more difficult than mine, where quick decisions are made that affect people’s life, death and freedoms. But when police make mistakes, those individuals should be held accountable for their actions just like anyone else. This would be a first step in creating an opportunity for substantive change to occur.

Since the killing of Trayvon Martin in February 2012, there have been more than 25 incidents of unarmed black men and women (a few under the age of 18) being killed by whites—sometimes police and sometimes citizens. And there have been nearly 80 of these types of cases since the 1999 brutal New York police shooting of Amadou Diallo, a 23 year-old immigrant from Guinea. [3] Despite the humongous strides that have been made since the times of segregation in the first half of the 20th century, the tumultuous 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and the breaking of color barriers in all arenas of life (entertainment, sports, academia, business and politics) over the last five decades, black-and-white racial tensions and issues surrounding race are still a thing of the present. Not something in our past. The notion that we are post-racial anytime we have the first African-American of something is a myth. We have never been post-racial. We are always presently immersed in matters of race. And as Christians, we are always answering God’s call to understand the values of another’s race because of the love that unites us as the body of Christ—the love that identifies God’s people as being chosen ones, holy and beloved by our Creator. America’s a better place/than it was fifty years ago/There’s been a whole lotta change/But we gotta long way to go selma_ver2 On Friday, Elizabeth and I saw the Oscar nominated Selma—an inspiring and powerful film about the summer of 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a non-violent campaign in Selma, Alabama to secure equal voting rights for blacks in the face of cruel and violent opposition from authorities. King and the marchers sought to be recognized by whites as God saw them: chosen ones, holy and beloved. It is one thing to read about the events from that time or listen to interviews, view old photographs or watch grainy documentaries. And it is quite another to see, on a large screen, the brutality that many citizens and civil rights activists faced before, during, and after the courageous movement in Selma. Our eyes were streaming throughout the movie. One of the most tear-jerking scenes is of the incident known as Bloody Sunday, in which state troopers attacked 600 unarmed blacks that were attempting to march to the Montgomery state capital to exercise their constitutional right to vote. As I watched the troopers, armed with billy clubs and tear gas, chasing and beating the marchers unmercifully, I was reminded of the standoff in Ferguson between military-armed white police officers and mostly peaceful protestors, many of who were black. While blood wasn’t shed in the wake of the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson, the conflict between the Ferguson police and the people of Ferguson was eerily similar to the tension in Selma. The “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” protests held across the nation, including the campuses of Emory and Columbia Theological Seminary, in response to non-conviction in the Garner case also flashed in my head—affirming that we are not far removed from those 60s protests. It’s true, as Franti sings, that America is a lot better than it was 50 years ago. The police brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 and the use of fire hoses and police dogs on black protestors by Birmingham Police in 1963 are non-existent. There are no more savage beatings, bombings or lynchings or burning crosses. Public places are no longer segregated with designated “white only” signs in restaurants, schools, parks, businesses and government buildings. And blacks are no longer vehemently denied opportunities to make their lives and the world better; they have the right to vote and be elected to public office, to make a living and influence the progress of industry, technology, the arts, and athletics. There’s been a lot of change, but there is certainly a long way to go: *The 114th Congress, which began its work this month, is the most diverse in our country’s history and yet it is still more than 80 percent white.[4] * The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households. And the black-and-white income gap is about 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.[5] * In 2004, professors at the University of Chicago and MIT, conducted an experiment in which they sent out 5,000 identical fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help wanted ads. Some of the resumes had traditional white names like Brendan and others had traditional black names like Jamal.  Applications with white names were 50 percent more likely to get calls for interviews.[6] I share these examples not to make whites feel guilty or insinuate that all whites are racists. I mention them simply to raise consciousness that we still live in a system where the color of one’s skin has a great (and often unjust) impact. When we used to have a problem/we would call the police/But who we gonna call when the police make a problem/I’m not saying that they’re all bad/I’m not saying that I’m any better/All I’m just trying to say is that we could all do a lot better When a recent CNN poll asked “How many police officers in the area where you live … are prejudiced against blacks?” 17% of whites said “most or some,” but more than twice as many non-whites — 42% — felt there is prejudice. And when asked, “Does the U.S. criminal justice system treat whites and blacks equally?” 50% of whites said yes while nearly 80 percent of non-whites said no. [7] Other studies reveal that African-Americans are incarcerated more often than whites, even if both races commit the same crime.[8] It’s also been reported that while white Americans use more illegal drugs than black Americans, blacks are far more likely to go to prison for the drug offenses than whites who break the same laws.[9] None of this is to say that most or even half of the authorities (police, lawyers, judges, politicians) in a white dominated society are prejudiced or bigots. There are many good people, white and black, serving on our streets and in our courtrooms, government buildings and jails. I met many upstanding police officers when I was a newspaper reporter in the late 90s in Birmingham, Alabama. I observed many white and black cops performing risky and courageous deeds to better the community. I met honorable lawyers and judges who strived to make fair and just decisions. However, despite the good of the U.S. criminal justice system, there is much that is corrupt about it. There are many who have not ridden themselves, as the apostle Paul writes, of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language” from their mouths. And that holds true for everyday citizens like you and me. We lie to one another. Deceive one another. Judge one another. Despise one another. Resent one another. Fear one another. Hate one another. We cling so tightly to those old clothes of deceit, trickery, judgment and harm instead of clothing ourselves with the new self that Paul describes— A new self, “which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator.” A fresh identity, which is being bound in the unconditional and redemptive love of Christ Jesus. I say it in my own house/and I say it on the street/I say it on a record and I say it on the beat/I paint it on the wall so everybody sees/when we all see justice/then we’ll all see peace. In my house growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, several family members uttered the n-word quite often. Distinctions were made between black people who were the n-word and those who weren’t. The distinction was based on a person’s criminal activity, education, or economic status: “He’s not like other blacks.” “She speaks very well for a black person.” “That’s interesting, his voice sounded white on the phone.” “Another (n-word) shot somebody.”

1973 James Bond in "Live and Let Die" with Roger Moore and Gloria Hendry. From Google Images

1973 James Bond in “Live and Let Die” with Roger Moore and Gloria Hendry. From Google Images

I remember in 1986, when I was 10 years old and visiting my grandparents in Florida, the 70s blockbuster movie Live and Let Die was airing on syndicated TV. Starring Roger Moore as British spy James Bond and Gloria Hendry as double agent Rosie Carver, the film marked the first time a black woman was ever sexually involved with the white 007. When the romantic scenes appeared, my grandfather and grandmother openly expressed their disgust over James Bond kissing that “n-word” woman. Flash forward more than 20 years to 2008, a time in which I naively believed I had escaped the prejudices of my upbringing and entering the post-racial society of the 21st century. We had just come to the Duluth area, and our white real estate agent was driving us around various neighborhoods in Gwinnett County to look for a home. As we were coming out of a house that we sorta liked, we noticed a black family living next door. The real estate agent looked at us and said, “Well, you don’t want to live here anyway.” About a year later at our current home in Lilburn, Elizabeth was outside chatting with a couple of neighbors, both white, when an African-American woman drove by in a fancy sports car. She was in the neighborhood to see a million-dollar home that was for sale—a house and piece of property much swankier than the rest of the neighborhood. One neighbor scoffed and said to the other: “Don’t worry. They can’t afford a house like that.” Racism these days is subtle, institutionalized, and implicit. It is often disguised as white concerns about crime, property values, and schools. In public—at schools, restaurants, shopping malls and football stadiums—black and whites co-exist without any trouble. Things are much different than they were 50 years ago. But sometimes in private, whether in our individual thoughts and attitudes or in one-on-one chats with other whites, subtle and implicit (and sometimes explicit) prejudice survives. I confess that for all the preaching I’ve done on race relations and issues of justice. For all the admiration I’ve expressed in regards to the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, and other civil rights activists, I too have held (and still grip) many subtle prejudices toward blacks. I’ve anxiously clicked the lock button on my car when I’ve seen a black man in casual clothes walking down the street, something I’ve never done when a white person has walked by my car. I’ve assumed that all black people in the projects are drug dealers, thieves and gang members, forgetting those decades of intense segregation, racism and white-flight to the suburbs that helped create slums and projects where its residents hardly have the means to escape. I’ve thought of a black person who acts like a jerk on TV as an n-word, but consider the white person demonstrating the same behavior to just be a jerk. I’ve seen black people unknown to me sitting in the church’s coffee area and assumed they were poor and in need of financial assistance when actually they were professionals waiting for a meeting. Essentially, I’ve forgotten at times that I am one of many members of the Body of Christ who has the privilege of being part of the white majority. And for all of the talking that a lot of us do about equality and God’s love for all, it’s time to admit that many of us here and many in our society still have some prejudices towards blacks.

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from Google Images

It’s time to start confessing our prejudice, and it’s time to start talking about prejudice and racism with other whites, and most certainly people of color. It’s time to do so because, as Dr. King reminds us, we “can’t be silent about things that matter.” It’s time we start praying to God to forgive us our sins and show us a new way. It’s time today to shed those old clothes of sin and wear new clothes given to us by Christ.       They can try to divide us/They can try to increase/all the pain and suffering/But this is everybody’s street/There is just one love y’all/and there is just one beat/And when we all see justice/then we’ll all see peace.

The powers and principalities of this world can try to distract us from adhering to God’s call of us. Those loud and extreme voices in the media, the ones that come at us from the Left and the Right, can try to divide us. Try to tell us we are foolish for showing God’s love and working for God’s peace and justice. But we mustn’t let them. None of us must let them.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” says the apostle Paul, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

I don’t have a 7-step plan for what white folks can do to be more loving and just toward people of color in our society. There’s no magic formula or ideal blue print.  As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, all that any of us in this world have is our hearts, enveloped by the clothes of Christ’s love. We must simply follow the beat of our hearts, practicing what Paul teaches and trying to change the world for the better.

For me, the best example of what it means to abide in love and peace might be the story of 12-year-old Devonte Hart and police Sgt. Bret Barnum of Portland, Oregon.[10] A few days after Thanksgiving, Devonte and his mother went to a Ferguson rally in their hometown of Portland, Oregon “with the intentionality of spreading love and kindness, and to remind (ALL) people that they matter in this world.” Standing alone in front of a police barricade, Hart held up a “Free Hugs” sign. As the rally proceeded, the young boy began to cry and that’s when Sgt. Barnum noticed him. The interaction was awkward at first, with the officer trying to make general chitchat with a distraught kid.

Photograph by John Nguyen, November 25, 2014

Photograph by John Nguyen, November 25, 2014

But then Sgt. Barnum asked Devonte why he was crying and the boy told him his concerns about the level of police brutality towards young black kids. The officer replied, “Yes. I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…can I have one of those free hugs?” Barnum and Devonte’s example doesn’t solve all of our racial problems instantly.   But it’s a good start if we are to clothe ourselves in love and let peace dwell within us.     It’s the beginning of a new life for all people whom God has made, all whom are chosen, holy and beloved. Amen. Hymn #543  “God Be The Love to Search and Keep Me” (Glory to God Hymnal)

A child in the congregation handed our head of staff this message after the worship service to give to me.

A child in the congregation handed our head of staff this message after the worship service to give to me.

Benediction (Benedictine Prayer, 1986): May God bless you with discomfort At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships So that you may live deep within your heart. May God bless you with anger At injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless you with tears To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them, and to turn their pain into joy. And may God bless you with enough foolishness To believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.

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[1] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/premieres/hear-michael-frantis-powerful-song-for-peace-between-police-and-communities-20141217 [2] http://www.relix.com/news/detail/same_as_it_ever_was_start_today_michael_franti_on_grief_anger_and_utter_bewilderment_following_eric_garner_chokehold_case [3] http://gawker.com/unarmed-people-of-color-killed-by-police-1999-2014-1666672349 [4] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/new-congress-mostly-male-white [5] But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow, 2013 [6] http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/26/us/ferguson-racism-or-racial-bias/index.html [7] http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/02/us/foreman-police-race/index.html [8] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/06/incarceration-gap-between-whites-and-blacks-widens/ and http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet [9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/17/racial-disparity-drug-use_n_3941346.html [10] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/ferguson-hug-between-protester-and-police-office-goes-viral and http://www.cbsnews.com/news/devonte-hart-hug-at-ferguson-rally-goes-viral/ and http://papertrail.co.nz/meet-devonte-little-boy-big-heart/

A Grace Filled Love

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

 

Prayer of the People for Sunday October 26, 2014 (based on John 20:24-29)

Creator God,

our days are filled with fear,

but not of the make-believe Halloween variety.

Unlike a mask and costume that can be easily removed,

the tangible things that frighten us are hard to shed.

(The threats of) ebola, cancer, terrorism, war, school shootings, crime and economic hardships

paralyze us.  The tragedy and brokenness stirs our anxiety and fills us with doubt.

We desperately search for meaning in the midst of the chaos.

We yearn for salvation from the troubles that plague our lives.

Open our eyes to see your presence and receive your healing touch in Christ Jesus who

suffered, and

died, and

conquered death

so that unconditional love would be known to all.

A grace filled love that breaks through the locked doors of our

homes, and

minds, and

hearts.

A grace filled love that greets us in the dark corners where we cower

A grace filled love that draws us into the ligh of mercy and newness.

Beckon us to step out in faith to personally touch the lives of others with that same grace filled love.

Remove our fears so that we can comfort others, provide encouragement and loose them

from the terror that binds them.

Remove our fears so that we can leave our comfort zones and go into scary places

to shine your light and illuminate your glory.

We pray this to you in the name of Christ who taught his disciples to pray together saying,

“Our Father who art in heaven…”

Jesus and the disciples, post Resurrection. Artist Unknown

Jesus and the disciples, post Resurrection. Artist Unknown