What We Have Done

Then there came to our place a large army, who killed many men, and took me, and brought me to the great sea, and sold me into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and sent me on board great ship and we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half, when we came to a place called Charleston in the Christian language.

From The Autobiography of Oman ibn Said (1831)

My favorite part of Rachel Held Evan’s Searching for Sunday is Chapter Ten: “What We Have Done.”

Christians, who had once been persecuted by the empire, became the empire, and those who had once denied the sword took up the sword against their neighbors.

And then she highlights some of the things done in the name of Jesus through the ages:

  • The Siege of Jerusalem (1099)
  • The Inquisition (12th – 14th Centuries)
  • Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitic On Jews and Their Lies (1543) which was used to justify the Holocaust (1941-1945)
  • European Christians slaughter native people in the New World (starting in the 15th Century)
  • Puritans obliterate the Pequots (1636-1637)
  • The Trail of Tears  (1838)
  • Protestant Clergy defend slavery (pre-Civil War)
  • Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King arrested in Birmingham for defending the treatment of Black workers (1963)
  • Bob Jones University defends interracial dating ban (1982)
  • Uganda passes law to sentence homosexuals to lifetime imprisonment “because we are a God-fearing nation.”) 2013

Jesus wept.  And not for joy.

I encourage you to read the diary of Mr. Omar ibn Said which is the only known diary of an enslaved person in the United States written in Arabic. (It’s a short read – only a few pages.)

His diary has been translated into English and it’s heartbreaking, yet hopeful.

Mr. Said was a prosperous and distinguished man who was kidnapped at the age of 37 from Africa, shipped to Charleston where he was sold to a cruel man. He escaped to Fayetteville, NC where he was arrested and later purchased by the Owens Family who were devout Presbyterian Christians.  He converted to Christianity and although he lauds his treatment by the Owens family, it seems that he died an enslaved man.  The Owens Family were members of First Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, NC – a congregation in my denomination.

I wonder if Mr. Said converted out of faith or out of fear.  It’s been said – at least for leaders – that you can be feared or you can be loved but you cannot be both.  I disagree, at least when it comes to The Divine.  I love Jesus and believe that I am loved by Jesus, but I also fear what God could do to us because we deserve it.

This is what grace is all about, though.  The White Christian Empire has annihilated millions of people throughout the ages of God’s good creation in a way that should spark our deepest shame.  “It wasn’t us,” we say.  “We never killed a Jew or a Muslim, never enslaved a person, never took a native American’s property.”  But our people did and the resulting privilege we’ve enjoyed is evidence of our participation.

What a downer for Eastertide.  But actually, this is an Easter message. We have been granted such grace that we are moved to repair what is broken in this world in hopes of making it a little more like heaven around here.

We have a lot of work to do.  Let’s go.

Image of the extraordinary Oman ibn Said.   Here‘s the PBS piece on him.  Also, please keep praying for Rachel Held Evans who is hospitalized with complications from an infection.

What Are “They” Looking For?

Probably not this:

By “this” I’m talking about a sanctuary full of people who look like themselves – only older.  I’m talking about a choir and pews and a pulpit.

By “they” I’m talking about “the young people.”  Millennials. Gen Xers. Gen Zers. Even those Boomers who used to be with us.  “They” are the Nones, the Dones, and even the “Wons” (those we convinced to join but we rarely see them.)  I’m often asked “where is everybody?”  “Why don’t people come to church anymore?” (It’s a complicated answer.)

Please do not misunderstand me.  I love the look and feel of church in terms of choirs, pews, and a pulpit.  I’m a fan of pipe organs along with drums and harps and trumpets and pianos and whatever other musical instruments people know how to play.  I like screens.  I like no screens.  I really like candles and banners and fresh flowers.  I love beautiful liturgy.

But this is not what most people are looking for.  Church is not about the trappings of an institution.  Real Church is what people are looking for – but not the way we – or even they – think of “Church.”

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

Lots of preachers preached on that text last weekend, and yet increasing numbers of our neighbors have stopped expecting much life from their local churches.  Here’s my take on what human beings are looking for in these days:

  • Honesty. Are people pretending to be something they aren’t?
  • Community. Do we learn from each other and care for each other?
  • Refuge. Are we safe here?
  • Hope. Will I find meaning and encouragement?
  • Support. Will they love me when they realize I’m a hot mess?
  • Something holy and eternal.  Is this about supporting an institution or something bigger?

It’s important to remember that those of us who are privileged and prosperous underestimate the numbers of people out there looking for food, affordable housing,  gainful employment, medical treatment, and safe neighborhoods – first and foremost. When I asked a wise pastor recently what was going on in her rural congregation regarding dismantling racism, she said that “people are mostly concerned about having enough food to eat.  Considering other issues is a luxury.”

I believe with all my heart that the Church of Jesus Christ will thrive when we offer what human beings really need to be the people God calls us to be – whether we believe in God or not.  In spite of the bright words of The Resurrection, many people would not think to look for resurrection in a church.  Why is that?

Image of an anonymous Protestant church in the Midwest U.S. on Easter Sunday.

The Happiest Place on Earth . . .

. . . is not church.

I am re-reading Rachel Held Evans’ excellent memoir Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church which quotes Walter Brueggemann at the beginning of Chapter Nine:

Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest place in town.

We are just a couple days past Easter Sunday and it was undoubtedly a happy time.  Families were together.  Church-sanctioned gluttony was encouraged. There might have been bonnets.  There definitely were bunny ears.  Bright colors ruled the day except for white lilies adorning thousands of sanctuaries.  We sang happy songs.  And it was church-legal to say Alleluia again.

I for one enjoyed a drink with an edible flower floating in it.  Nothing says happy like a flower in your drink.

But Real Church deals with unhappy things.  Pain and suffering don’t go away when we cross the threshold into the sanctuary but our pain and suffering are shared with other broken people who seek forgiveness and healing.  Or at least that’s what’s supposed to happen.

I have a friend who was invited to leave her church small group when she tearfully shared that she and her husband were getting a divorce.  She was told that her marriage problems “could be contagious.”  Comfortable = Happy.  And it was uncomfortable having an unhappy person in their midst.

RHE writes:

“I’m a Christian because Christianity names and addresses sin.  It acknowledges the reality that the evil we observe in the world is also present within ourselves.  It tells the truth about the human condition – that we’re not okay.”

Unfortunately, too many churches I know and love are not safe communities for sharing that we are not okay. We keep shameful secrets to ourselves for fear someone will judge us or gossip about us or banish us.  We’d prefer to pretend that church is the happiest place in town where all the little girls wear lacy socks and all the little boys say, “Yes, Ma’am.”  Too many of us know that church can be vicious when things are not pretty.

When I was a child, the happiest place in town was Addison’s Play World which was actually in Durham, the town next door.  It was North Carolina’s version of FAO Schwarz. Who could be unhappy there?

Actually, most people.  I remember leaving after our annual family visit each December filled with regret that I would never in fact receive the over-the-top gifts I saw there.  Pink child-sized grand pianos and trampolines and child-sized convertibles that drove like real cars.  It was all so beautiful and magical.  But it made me feel greedy inside.  And a little sad.

And there were always sobbing children in the aisles begging for toys.

I’m not sure what the happiest place in town is these days, but it will never be a church building – at least if that church building is a tool for authentic ministry.  Healthy congregations welcome and love people who struggle with everything from their faith to their addictions to their utility bills.  Effective congregations welcome the homeless, the refugee, the grieving.  Congregations offer relief and – certainly – there are happy results on many days.  But Real Church confronts evil and imperfection with love and that’s really hard.

True happiness comes when we are the people God created us to be. Not greedy or grabby or judge-y. It’s so much more than fake smiles and cursory handshakes during the Passing of the Peace.

There is deep joy when we take care of each other and love each other.  When people we barely know are praying with and for us, when they visit us and bring dinner, when they hold us while we weep, when they sit with us when we fail – this surely makes life a little better.  

Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable.  Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth.  We might just create sanctuary.*

*Rachel Held Evans in Searching for Sunday. Please pray for Rachel as she – at this writing – is in Intensive Care  after complications from an infection.  Updates on her health are here.  There’s a GoFundMe account to help pay medical expenses here.  And please pray for her and her family.

Image from the newly re-opened FAO Schwarz in NYC last fall.

Roles of a Lifetime

Christ is risen! And our role as followers of Jesus is to be instruments of resurrection in Christ’s name.

We are not called to be members of an institution (although being the Church together is essential.)  We are not called to “save people” (because there is only one Savior.)  We are not called to sacrifice ourselves/be crucified by the Church (although that sometimes happens.)

We are called to use our God-given gifts to equip other people to use the gifts God has given to them, as well.  (Check this out.)  Because of our baptisms, these are – literally – the roles of a lifetime.

A brilliant coach once taught me that effective ministry is all about understanding our roles.  And when Churches are in conflict it’s usually because roles have been confused and misunderstood.  For example:

  • It’s not the pastor’s role to unlock the doors and turn on the lights every Sunday. (If your pastor is doing that, then your leaders are both shirking and missing out on their own ministry.)
  • It’s not the personnel chairperson’s role to be “the pastor’s boss.” (The pastor’s “boss” is the congregation, the bishop/mid-council, etc. depending on your church’s polity.)
  • It’s not the church administrator’s role to keep pastoral care information from the pastor. (This is a power play.)
  • It’s not the music director’s role to control worship. (A healthy church staff works together on worship under the leadership of the pastor.)
  • It’s not the church treasurer’s role to decide if the pastor deserves to be paid this week.  (See: power play.)
  • It’s not the Church Ladies’ role to decide the norms of the congregation. (I have no further comments on this.)
  • It’s not the pastor’s role to be a spiritual Pied Piper.  (We want people to be in love with Jesus, not in love with the pastor.)

You get my point.  Our roles are about resurrection:

The blind see.  The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. And the poor have good news brought to them.

This is what Jesus expects us to be about in the world.  What killed Jesus:  spiritual laziness, power plays, selfishness, fear, narcissism, the very worst that the Church can be.

But Jesus lives for all that is healing and whole and good and holy.  And because Jesus is resurrected, we get to participate in resurrection too.  If we indeed remember our baptisms – that we have been called to new life – then we will accept this role of a lifetime: to be agents of resurrection in the name of the One who lives.

And also Happy Earth Day.

Image by Laura Brodrick.  Source here.


Happy Easter

When The Church is Hateful

Today we remember that Jesus was forsaken by his own congregation.  He was betrayed by a good friend.  He was abandoned by others.  His words were taken out of context by the Pharisees. He was gaslit before anybody knew to call it gaslighting.

The Church of Jesus Christ has a history of this kind of traumatizing behavior.

  • Church people who seem “nice” but then they eat their own.
  • Congregations who call young pastors “to help them grow and change” only to turn on those pastors for doing just that.
  • Followers of Jesus who actually follow the bullies.
  • People who refuse to refute the gossips.
  • Graceless behavior.
  • “Welcoming congregations” with a high stink eye quotient.
  • Parishioners who banish the divorced, the broken, the queer.

We are the kind of people – we who are bullies and fear mongers and gossips and mean girls – that Jesus died for.  Jesus even died for the haters. The crucifixion was about showing love even to those who don’t deserve it.  Let that sink in.

Who have we have bullied and feared and gossiped about and tortured?  Can we try to show grace in a hateful world?

Image is White Crucifixion by Chagall (1938)

Fake News is Real (and so is Fake Theology)

One of my pet peeves on the evening news is the banter of newscasters after a story is reported.  Example:

Reporter: (Reports the story about a new treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease.)

News Anchor: Thank you Roger.  This news gives everybody hope.

Me: (in my head) Does it? And why do you need to comment? 

There are journalists who research and report the news.  And then there are talking heads who opine about the news and deliver their take as if they are journalists.  Note:  Hannity, Maddow, etc. are not reporters or journalists.  They offer commentary that supports what they consider to be true/right/real.

This has divided us. Millions of people watch what appears to be The News when what they are actually watching hours of opinion pieces that perpetuate their own political stances.

What is the plain meaning of a news story?  It’s about facts and only facts.

Fact:  The Cathedral at Notre Dame burned.  Commentary:  Even the faithless are in mourning.

Fact: Meghan Markle is going to have a baby. Commentary: British tabloids are reportedly upset that there will be no newborn photo shoot.

Some interpretation of the news is helpful in terms of understanding beyond the plain meaning of a statement.  For example: Congresswoman Ilhan Omar spoke last month at a CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) event and said this to a group of Muslims:

“Here’s the truth. For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen. Frankly, I’m tired of it. And every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”

Commentators have responded with “She doesn’t consider 9/11 to have been an act of terrorism” or “She is minimizing the horror of that day.”

People have taken her words out of context or attributed meaning to her words that were not there.  Sometimes we need to look at the plain meaning of a sentence and ask:

  • What was the context?
  • Who was the audience?
  • What was said before and after the specific sentence that troubles you?

Imagine if I told you that these lines can be found in the Bible:

  • Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 
  • Two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.
  • Jesus began to weep.

And now imagine if I told you that the plain meaning is clearly that:

  • Abraham is a child murderer.
  • Mother Bears were a special danger in ancient Israel.
  • Jesus was a crier.

The top lines come from the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.  The bottom set seems to point out “the plain meaning” of those top lines.  But to understand what’s going on, a preacher will offer the historical context, the probable audience, the genre (is this from a poem?), and the textual features.  A solid preacher will explain that Genesis 2 is about the end of child sacrifice, 2 Kings 2 is about the importance of respecting God’s prophets, and John 11 is about the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus and – being a human being – Jesus wept when Lazarus died.  Spoiler alert: Easter is not the first resurrection story in the Greek Testament.

My point is this:  some commentary is good.  We need to know the context, the history, the audience.  But we don’t need eisegesis either from preachers who are twisting scripture to make it say what they want it to say or from media personalities who are twisting words to create drama.

Fake news is real.  Fake theology is real.  God gave us brains to discern what is real and what is not real and in this Holy Week, we remember Jesus whose words were twisted and whose actions were misconstrued.

Looking back on that day 2000 years later, we can see that Jesus was executed unfairly.  But in the First Century, perhaps we would have believed the commentators too.  Perhaps we would have listened to the politicians who gaslighted him.

Here in the middle of Holy Week, I pray we will not be lazy followers of Jesus.  I pray we will not be lazy citizens.  I pray we will defend people who are being gaslighted like Representative Oman.  We can agree with her or we can disagree with her.  But if we allow people to crucify her, we are no better than they are.

Image from The Berean Corner.

Holy Week Questions: Where Do We Need to Catch Up?

The parade into Jerusalem is well underway and – if we plan to follow Jesus into Easter this week – we might need to catch up.  Speaking from the perspective of a Pharisee (a well educated, prosperous person in the dominant culture) some of us have a lot of catching up to do.

I’m trying to catch up on my history of white supremacy.  Although it’s an 11 year old book – and it’s very detailed and very long – I’ve been listening to Annette Gordon-Reed‘s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. It extensively covers the history of white supremacy during a slice of time when one enslaved woman landed in Virginia in the 17th Century whose granddaughter became the mother of Thomas Jefferson’s last six children.

As a southern girl who was taught that slaveholders treated the people they enslaved “like family”  not to mention that Thomas Jefferson who wrote:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….”

wasn’t really talking about “all men,” much less “all people” I have some re-education to do.

When a politician believes that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” he has some catching up to do about women’s reproductive health.  Actually lots of legislators need to catch up on sex education.

When Americans believe that immigrants take jobs away from us, we need to catch up on economic realities.

When we believe that people with black or brown skin are more dangerous than people with white skin, we need to do our research on the actual numbers.  While the gap between the number of black and brown prisoners and the number of white prisoners is lessening, it’s still true that:

In 2016, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners. And while Hispanics represented 16% of the adult population, they accounted for 23% of inmates. Source.

Where do you need to catch up?  And I’m not talking about returning emails or doing laundry.  Yes, we are busy with life things.  But in this week where people who follow Jesus consider Life and Death Things, can we agree that each of us – especially if you too are a Pharisee – needs to catch up on the realities of the world around us?

Holy Week Questions: What Kind of Famous?

There have been three studies over the past several years declaring that – more than anything else – “kids today” want to be famous.  And there are lots of different kinds of famous:

Obviously some kinds of famous are crossovers.  People know Tiger Woods for sports plus several other things.  Same with Amal Clooney and Abby Wambaugh and Whoopi Goldberg and Kate Bowler.

Can you think of anyone who is famous because of the way they live their lives for others? I was thinking the other day about the people I consider to be National Treasures and they tend to be the ones who do creative, self-sacrificial things:

Bryan Stephenson. Dolly Parton. John Green. Melinda and Bill Gates. Hasan Minhaj.

Those who personally know those people would surely say that they are deeply flawed, and yet they make daily choices that benefit strangers.  Each of them could spend their lives sitting on their own laurels and yet they serve “the least of these.”  They find joy in service.

The world is better because of the way they live.

Especially on this week when we remember the last days of Jesus’ life, I want the world to be better because of the way I live.  I want the world to be better because of the way you live.  I want my children to change the world for good.  I want your children to change the world for good.

This doesn’t happen if we seek to be famous and so it’s fairly disturbing that being famous is a widely held aspiration – and not just among “the kids.”  Imagine a world in which we aspire to serve rather than to be served.  This is God’s breathtaking message.  This is Truth.

Image of Deah Barakat and Yusur Mohammad Abu Salha.  I dedicate this post to the memory of Deah who- with his wife Yusur and her sister Razan – were murdered in my hometown on 2-10-15.  Mr. Barakat was an extraordinary human being who made the world a much better place.  You can donate to a charity in their names here.

Shades of Purple (Churches)

Politically speaking, the Bible is an equal opportunity offender.  Not only is God neither a Democrat nor a Republican, God’s wisdom and love are beyond all measure, beyond anything we can comprehend or package.

It was fun to see one of my favorite churches covered by NPR recently for finessing the tricky path to being a Purple Church.  “Purple churches” appreciate the perspectives and honor the presence of people who consider themselves “red” politically (i.e. more conservative) and people who consider themselves “blue” politically (i.e. more liberal.)

Can we – as a spiritual community – be “open and welcome to anyone who wants to come” and not be theologically wishy washy?  I think so.  But there are many shades of purple for “Purple Churches.”  I served a Purple Church for 22 years.  We talked about Jesus openly.  We talked about “hot topics” (abortion, LGBTQ rights, immigration) openly and allowed people to agree to disagree. And yet . . .

  • Some would say that we were not-so-secretly “Blue” because the church was served by a female pastor.
  • Some would say that we were not-so-secretly “Red” because  closeted LGBT members who were approached about serving as elders said that they were not ready and  the church was not ready.
  • Some would say that we were clearly “Blue” because we decided that – in fact – we would ordain LGBTQ leaders and we would also welcome same-sex couples to have their marriages blessed in our sanctuary.  (Same sex marriage was not legal at that time in Virginia.)
  • Some would say that we were clearly “Red” because we started a new church that focused on open conversation about faith in Jesus and personal testimony.
  • Some would insist (and leave the church) because we loved our LGBTQ members and didn’t exclude them from leadership.
  • Some would insist (and leave the church) because we refused to baptize a Muslim woman who asked to be baptized but couldn’t say that Jesus was her LORD and Savior.

I just finished Robert W. Lee’s book A Sin By Any Other Name in which he discusses what happened when he  challenged his white congregation to address white privilege.  (Spoiler alert: he was asked to leave the church.)  Lee was a young a pastor and perhaps did not finesse his message as a more seasoned leader might have.  But he spoke from a place of deep conviction and doesn’t Jesus ask us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world?  Doesn’t Jesus warn us about persecution for speaking up and living out our faith?

Sometimes I worry that calling ourselves a “Purple Church” is an excuse for dodging tough but essential questions.

The NPR story and this article about the same congregation stresses the importance of process.  It’s not always helpful for the preacher to preach a volatile message – even if it’s a faithful message – without preparing the congregation to hear it.  (And yet, didn’t Jesus do that?  Jesus wasn’t executed for being a middle-of-the-road preacher.)

Jesus also loved God’s people deeply – even to the point of dying for them.  I assume that Jesus would be pleased with us ensuring that all voices are heard and respected.

Note:  Jesus also was a name-caller:  “Brood of Vipers” etc.

The bottom line for me is that following Jesus is easy and not easy.  We are called simply to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Simple, right?  But who really does this and does this well?  Do our neighbors include Transgender people, undocumented immigrants, terrorists, parents who won’t vaccinate their kids?  And what does “loving” them mean?

There are shades of purple and one person’s purple is another person’s royal blue. Maybe some of our congregations are actually “lilac” and others are clearly “eggplant.”

I’m sad when people leave “our church” to go to another church, but I’m more interested in them finding a community where they can best connect with God.  Maybe our brand of purple looks red hot or baby blue to them.  It’s okay.

But it’s a gloriously holy thing when God’s people can wrestle and grapple and be a random, odd assortment of misfit toys together.  That’s church.  In the Purple Church I once served, we had Republicans and Democrats, people who had served in every US President’s administration from Ford to the second Bush, and folks from Nigeria, Vietnam, South Sudan, Korea, Cameroon, Ghana, and Turkey. And we loved each other.  And we did some amazing ministry together.

And sometimes people needed to leave and find another congregation.  That hurt.  But we have to trust that God is working in lots of different kinds of congregations in many shades of purple.