Beyond Art Shows and Sock Collections

I love a good art show.  And I appreciate comfy socks.

And I also know that art shows and socks will not change a deeply entrenched culture of inequity.  And that’s what we need right now if we are serious about making earth “as it is in heaven.

I was in a meeting last week with a group of Church People and a local community organizer whom I’ll call R.

We were discussing what our city needs in light of the violence in our neighborhoods, the uneven opportunities for public education, the lack of COVID-19 testing available in predominantly African American neighborhoods, etc.

The conversation was about inequity.  “How can the Church make a positive difference?” we asked.  And I loved the community organizer’s response:

“We don’t need anymore art shows.”

Again, I’m fan of art shows.  I’ve known congregations who have invited the neighbors to display their masterpieces in the hopes of 1) appreciating local artists and 2) offering a way for those artists to make some money by selling their paintings.  Sounds like a good idea, right?

Sure. It’s simple to pull off a local art show on a random Saturday.  It requires minimal commitment and effort.  It’s an opportunity to “reach out into the neighborhood” and subsequently congratulate ourselves.  It’s even Quarantine Legal if we are outside wearing masks and standing six feet apart.

Again – yay art.  This very blog is named for starving artists who see how the world can be different.

And who doesn’t need sturdy socks – especially if you live on the streets? A congregation sets out a box and people donate a pair or two and then – done.  Somebody takes the socks to a local shelter and we feel a great about it.  Easy.

The community organizer made us all laugh when he suggested that we forget about the art shows and sock collections.  If we want to offer a simple, painless project then – by all means – exhibit some paintings for sale and donate socks.

But the Church is called to make sacrifices, not offer simple gestures.  R. said that what we really need – at least in our particular city  – was for congregations to:

  • Offer violence interruption programs.
  • Teach social entrepreneurship.
  • Help change the culture of our local police department.

(I can hear you now, Church People.)

You are suggesting that we get political. 

We don’t have any business doing those things. 

Church is supposed to be about Bible studies and hymn sings, not “social justice.”

I don’t know what Bible you are reading, but mine says that Jesus was killed for political reasons, that Jesus calls us to get involved in the lives of the poor and imprisoned, and that Jesus charges all disciples to feed the poor and heal the sick – among other things.

One of the reasons why the Institutional Church has floundered through the years is because we have forgotten The Great Commission and The Great Commandments.

We spend lots of energy on projects like Bake Sales and Candy Sales, Preschools and Vacation Bible Schools, Book Studies and Bible Studies.  And all of these programs are good.  Nothing wrong with them.

But if we are serious about discipleship (i.e. following Jesus) it won’t be enough. The One who changed the world expects us to change the world too – in his name.  God has blessed us with these pandemic, protest-filled days to remind us that following Jesus involves sacrifice.  Sometimes we need a painful jolt to wake us up – especially if our daily lives are comfortable.

Yay for art shows and sock collections.

But what have we done lately – in faith – to change the world for good in the name of Jesus Christ?

Image of a church art show.  I’ve covered up the church sign because my point isn’t to embarrass that particular congregation.

Are We Resilient Yet?

How are you doing?
This is how many of my Zoom meetings begin and depending on who’s on the call and our relationships, we might hear:
  • Everything’s fine.
  • I’m drinking too much.
  • I’ve gained my Covid-19 (pounds)
  • The whole family’s been really cranky.
  • The pandemic has been great for my devotional life.
  • The pandemic has been great for my sex life.
  • I don’t see what the big deal is.  
All humans need a resilience tool box, especially when the world is stressed out on political divisions, culture shifts, daily violence, and – oh right – a pandemic with no vaccine.  And there’s also the everyday stress of chores, child-raising, homework, office work, and relationships.
Good things for the tool box:  Exercise (but not in a gym right now.) Deep breathing. Prayer. Naps. Screen check-ins with loved ones (“How are you doing?“) Drives in the country. Walks in the woods.  Knitting. Baking. Punching bags. Volunteering.
Bad things for the tool box: Cocaine. Overeating. Overdrinking. Hitting people.
The New York Times has a whole series on resilience you can read here, including what we need in our tool boxes.  And one of the articles helpfully states this:
The very earliest days of our lives, and our closest relationships can offer clues about how we cope with adversity.
This is not good news if our earliest days were traumatic and our closest relationships are toxic.  I’ve written before about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and childhood trauma definitely jacks up our risk for all sorts of adult issues.
But childhood trauma doesn’t mean we can’t learn how to cope better.  Toxic relationships do not forever condemn us to a crushed life.
I believe that the Church is called to build resilience and I’m not just talking about memorizing verses about God loving the sparrow – although those verses are true.  I’m talking about redeeming trauma.  I’m talking about nurturing healthy relationships.
Yes, I’m talking about the Church here.
(And yes – dysfunctional congregations cause trauma and sick relationships.  Those congregations are not serving God.)
According to this article in the NYT series, resilient people share these characteristics:
  • They have a positive, realistic outlook. 
  • They have a moral compass.

  • They have a belief in something greater than themselves.

  • They are altruistic; they have a concern for others and a degree of selflessness.

  • They accept what they cannot change and focus energy on what they can change.

  • They have a mission, a meaning, a purpose.

  • They have a social support system, and they support others.

How are our congregations modeling these characteristics?  How do we see these characteristics in the life of Jesus?  (Can you think of a more resilient human being than Jesus?)
How can we build resilience to the glory of God – not merely for our own sakes, but for the purpose of being strong enough to help others cope?
How can we create healthy toolboxes for God’s people?  The world is going to need them for a long, long time.

What We Didn’t Learn in School (Is Coming Back to Bite Us)

I can’t remember when I first learned about Juneteenth but it wasn’t in (my very good) public schools or even in college.  It’s been mentioned in the past years and especially in the past weeks that we who are White need to educate ourselves on everything from microaggressions to the Massacre of Black Wall Street in Tulsa in 1921.

Most White people do not know the history of:

  • Lynchings in our own cities’ history.  (And not just in the Southeastern United States.)
  • The Doctrine of Discovery (You can’t discover what someone’s already discovered and established as their home.)
  • The origins of White Supremacy in the United States. (The first enslaved people landed in Virginia in 1619. An enslaved person was considered 3/5ths of a human being. 40 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves.  10 of the first 12 Presidents owned slaves.
  • The campaign to create a post-Civil War mythology. (Gone With the Wind. Confederate Statues. The lionization of Robert E. Lee.)

We have a lot of reading and listening and watching to do if we care about – not only our own education in U.S. History but also – what the Bible teaches us about loving our neighbor as ourselves and loving God.

And we have a lifetime of confession and repair to make.  Once we know our own history, we cannot act as if we don’t know it.

You might remember that when the television show Finding Your Roots disclosed to Ben Affleck that his ancestors included a slaveholder, Affleck was so embarrassed that he caused the PBS show to be taken off the air – temporarily.  Nobody likes to find embarrassing or shameful history in their past.  We – especially those of us who are White in America – like to believe that our ancestors were noble and our heritage was honorable.  It reflects well on us.

We who believe in the God of grace must face the fact that we need that grace – personally, corporately, historically.

Over the weekend, the 224th General Assembly of my denomination – the Presbyterian Church USA – elected Co-Moderators whose ancestors’ blood is in the soil on which we stand.  Rev. Gregory Bentley is an African American pastor serving a congregation in Alabama.  Elder Elona Street-Stewart is a Mid-Council executive in Minnesota and a descendant of the Native American Delaware Nanticoke Tribe.  For the first time in my denomination’s history, we have elected two Co-Moderators who represent a breadth of history we in the Church have often ignored.  We need to learn what we never learned in school – or even in Sunday School – about who we are and who God is.

Although God has created human beings to be a servant people who love the foreigner, the poor, the orphaned, the cast out, we are currently – and historically – self-serving, cruel, and greedy.  This means we need God’s grace.  We cannot be the people we’ve been created to be without it.

We need to know our history and repent.  The Bible tells me so.

For every school we Christians established, for every hospital we chartered, for every good thing we ever accomplished to the glory of God, there are ugly chapters of our history too.  Many times we have been self-serving, cruel, and greedy, for nobody’s glory but our own.

We can do better.  The blessings of these tumultuous days is that with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, with the President’s rally in Tulsa, with the attention to violence upon peaceful protesters we have opportunities to learn the backstories and the history that has brought us to this point.

We Presbyterians pride ourselves in valuing education.  We have much to learn.

Image source.


An Invitation to Focus

This video is 2 minutes long.  It won’t kill you to watch it.

My denomination is the Presbyterian Church USA and we are trying to be a Matthew 25 Church.  We are asking each congregation and each mid-council to focus on one or more of these core values serving “the least of these”:

  • Building congregational vitality by challenging people and congregations to deepen their faith and get actively and joyfully engaged with their community and the world.
  • Dismantling structural racism by advocating and acting to break down the systems, practices and thinking that underlie discrimination, bias, prejudice and oppression of people of color.
  • Eradicating systemic poverty by working to change laws, policies, plans and structures in our society that perpetuate economic exploitation of people who are poor.

You might say, “Of course we try to live out Matthew 25.  This is what it means to be church.”  But – honestly – imagine what it would look like if all our deliberations about our mission, our educational programming, and our budgeting was discerned through the lens of Matthew 25.

Presbyterians:  please share the video above.  It’s not enough to say that “the church is not a building.”

We need to realize that Pentecost Has Found Us.  The Spirit of God is upon us to deepen our faith and to break down systems that perpetuate racism and poverty.  God is using the death of George Floyd and others to shift the culture of everybody from Quaker Oats and Mars to Netflix.

It’s time for the Church to take the lead in shifting the global culture so that the earth resembles heaven more than it resembles hell – especially for the ones Jesus called “the least of these.”

Your congregation can officially become a Matthew 25 Church hereThis is not a gimmick.  This is an invitation to focus.

In other words, next time you are in a church meeting talking about flower arrangements and the cemetery fund, please – somebody – ask:

  • How does this decision Build Congregational Vitality?  
  • How does this decision Dismantle Structural Racism?
  • How does this decision Eradicate Poverty.

(Regarding flowers and cemeteries, if there is no building, dismantling, or eradicating,  let’s not let it be our focus.  Get it?)

Be safe out there.  And remember that your church is open – if you are still serving God’s people – even if the doors are locked, even if your worship is still virtual.  If your church is not serving God’s people, you were never truly open.

Art Helps

Say Their Names by Kadir Nelson

Today is the fifth anniversary of the murder of nine Children of God who died at the hands of a young white supremacist during a Bible study.

There are problems with that sentence – the biggest one being that it fulfills our image of white supremacy: a broken white man who embraced the Confederate flag attacks people because of hate and racism.  We all know the story about officers treating the white man with Burger King in jail.  (Most white supremacists don’t look like that man.  They look more like me.)

I received my copy of this week’s New Yorker magazine yesterday and the cover by Kadir Nelson is profoundly moving.  Look at it.  Lament over it.  Let it inform our prayers of personal and corporate confession.

In these days of brokenness and sorrow, art helps.

 Kadir Nelson is a supremely gifted American artist.

When Somebody Says “This Is Not the Time”

I would buy the scotch and Marj would tell stories.

The quote above was shared yesterday by a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA who will remain nameless for their own privacy, upon hearing that Marj Carpenter had died.  Marj hailed from Big Spring, Texas which sounds like the kind of place a great storyteller would come from.

She wrote down her stories and she orally shared them through the years and I especially remember both reading and hearing this one:

In 1864, the states were at war with each other.  It was an ugly time and even the Presbyterian Church was divided in two:

  • The Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America
  • The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.

In spite of the war, each branch of the Church met for their annual General Assembly – the CSA Presbyterians in Charlotte, North Carolina and the USA Presbyterians in Newark, New Jersey.

While ministers and elders were deliberating on church policy, homes were being burned and church buildings were being sacked.  Presbyterians from both the north and the south were killing each other and enslaved Presbyterians were considered less than human by the very church people who had taught them to read the Bible.

Lord have mercy.

If there were ever excuses NOT to care for “other people” it was 1864.  The blood and treasure of a broken nation was being devoted to a brutal war that would take the lives of 618,222 human souls – 360,222 from the North and 258,000 from the South.

Important point to remember: This death toll doesn’t count the tens of thousands of men, women and children who died as a result of being treated as human chattel in this country from the time enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619 to that point.

So here’s the interesting thing:

During that General Assembly in Charlotte, the commissioners voted to send an additional missionary to Brazil.  In spite of the war, in spite of financial hardship, they realized that God was calling them to reach out to the people of Brazil.  Nobody said, “This is not the time.”

During the General Assembly in Newark, the commissioners voted to send three missionaries to Cameroon.  In spite of the war, in spite of financial hardship, they realized that God was calling them to reach out to the people of Cameroon.  Nobody said, “This is not the time.”

Important point to remember: There were enslaved people in the South whose ancestors had hailed from Cameroon and other parts of West Africa.  I don’t know if the Northern Presbyterians were trying to offer some kind of twisted reparations to the West African cousins in the South by serving their kinfolk back home, but – again – Lord, have mercy.

So, here’s my point:

We are living in divided times at this very moment.  There is enormous work to do in the now “united” Presbyterian denomination and beyond.  There are reparations to be made.  There is lamentation to be expressed. I would suggest that my White siblings and I schedule a rending of garments.

We are living in pandemic times with over 118,000 dead in this country and another countless number of People of Color killed since the end of the Civil War by lynchings – both ancient and as recently as last week.  Our world is on fire both literally and figuratively.

And lots of people in the Church are saying that this is not the time.

  • This is not the time to build affordable housing.
  • This is not the time to provide internet access to poor communities.
  • This is not the time to grapple with the needs of refugees and immigrants.
  • This is not the time to feed hungry people.
  • This is not the time to provide job training.
  • This is not the time to reach out to our transgender neighbors.
  • This is not the time to address domestic violence.
  • This is not the time to talk about racial justice.

For the love of all that’s holy, this is the perfect time to do what God is calling and has always called us to do. If there was ever a time, this is it.

This. Is. The. Time. To. Be. The. Church.

Marj Carpenter visited both Brazil and Cameroon and met the leaders who were bringing Good News to the Poor and Relief to the Captives because of the Church’s efforts in 1864.  She cried when I heard her tell those stories.

The Church has made massive mistakes out in the mission field from offering toxic charity to perpetuating colonialism.  And we are still making up for that – and for so many sins of our past.

But this is the time to do better.  This is the time to take risks for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus.  At the risk of sounding self-serving, the next time someone in your congregation says, “This is not the time” feel free to hand them a copy of this post.

It is always the time to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.  This is that time.

Image of Marj Carpenter  who died at the age of 93 on Saturday, June 13, 2020. We give God thanks for a well-lived life. She was the Moderator of the 207th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The 244th General Assembly begins this Friday “in Baltimore” (i.e. virtually in our homes.)

Anniversaries That Matter

Every day is the anniversary of something.  On every single day of the year, somebody died and somebody was born. Something was invented and something was destroyed.

The Equal Justice Initiative publishes a calendar you can order here (a deal at $2.00) that includes – on every single day of the year – the anniversary of a racial injustice that happened that day in history.  It is an excellent devotional resource for lamentation.

There are certain personal anniversaries that will forever mark the particular Befores and Afters of our lives.  September 16 will always be that day for me because it marks the day my life was divided between “having my Mom” and “not having my Mom.”  Pete Davidson’s demarkation date is September 11, the day his father died in the attacks on NYC.  He was 7 years old.  Many people I respect on social media often refer to their own personal Before and After days.  For Shannon Dingle it’s July 19th.  For the family of Rachel Held Evans, it’s May 4th.

Our culture in the United States is marked by anniversaries that some of us recognize annually and some of us do not.  Among those include several in the month of June:

  • The beginning of the Tulsa Massacre of Black Wall Street – June 1
  • The assassination of Medgar Evers in Jackson, MS – June 12
  • The murders of LGBTQ siblings in the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, FL – June 12
  • The murders of nine church people attending a Bible study in Charleston, SC – June 17
  • The final declaration of The Emancipation Proclamation to enslaved people who had not yet heard in Galveston, TX – June 19 (i.e. Juneteenth)

This particular week is also a special anniversary for me as I mark June 17 as the date when Denise Anderson and I became the first Co-Moderators of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA.  It marks a Before and After time of my life.  One June 17, 2016 Denise and I stood before the commissioners of the 222 General Assembly of our denomination and spoke these words:

Good evening. We greet you in the name and with the love of our Savior,  Brother, Friend, and Lord Jesus Christ. Our names are Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston and we humbly ask you to consider electing us to be Co¬≠-Moderators of this 222nd General Assembly. 

Less than a week after the worst shooting in American history in a  gay bar during Pride month, the day after the first anniversary of the murder of our brothers and  sisters in Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, on the eve of Juneteenth when slavery was finally abolished in Texas and throughout the Confederate South, and the year of the 60th anniversary of the ordination of women . . . we hope to be Co¬≠Moderators who talk about these things.

We are still talking about those things – and rightly so.  Since that night, new anniversary dates have marked our history forevermore:

  • The shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA – July 5, 2016
  • The shooting of Philando Castile in Saint Paul, MN – July 6, 2016
  • The shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, CA – March 18, 2018
  • The shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY – March 13
  • The choking of George Floyd outside a grocery store in Minneapolis, MN – May 25

Each one of these deaths was caused by professional police officers resulting in the deaths of unarmed people of color.  And these are the ones with video or sound recordings.

I look forward to joyous anniversaries in our futures:

  • The day when a vaccine is proven effective against COVID-19 and we can all get back to a sort-of normal time.
  • The day when we elect political leaders who care for “the least of these.
  • The day when our nation becomes what we say we want to be.

This Friday marks the first day of the 224th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. 

The 224th.

For the first time it will be virtual.  It will be shortened because nobody can Zoom 10 hours a day for 10 days.

And it will be both inspirational and aspirational – I pray.  I also pray it will mark a holy “Before” and “After” moment for all the commissioners who make decisions for the Church in the name of Jesus Christ.

Image of the 2020 EJI calendar.  They make inspirational and aspirational gifts.

Because We Don’t Really Want to . . .

The National Treasure known as Dr. Yolanda Pierce tweeted this the other day:

It occurred to me – as someone who works with churches in transition (which is all of them) – that this is exactly why churches flounder and die.  We speak the words of spiritual growth and church growth but we really don’t want to do what we say we want to do.

  • “We want to become more diverse.”  This line can be found in countless files of congregations seeking a new pastor.  The white churches have noticed that demographics are changing in the U.S. and they’ve heard that “the young people” like diversity.  What this really means, though,  is that the church wants to think of themselves as open and inclusive to all God’s children.  It’s not true.  These congregations want to welcome new people who will pledge money and keep their diversity to themselves.
  • “We want to reach out into the neighborhood.”  Sometimes this means that we want to reach down to the neighbors.  We want to help the poor but not to the point that they are sitting beside us in the pews.  We will go out to the homeless shelter or the soup kitchen, but we don’t want to house the homeless or invite them into our own kitchens.
  • “We want to deepen our spiritual maturity.”  Interpretation: we want our kids to have good morals and we want to learn enough about Jesus to hold our own in the Bible Belt, but please don’t make us sacrifice anything. We have a hard enough time giving up coffee for Lent.
  • (Especially in these days post-George Floyd’s murder) “We want to understand what white privilege is and of course, we want to dismantle it.”  So, is there a book I could read?  Is there a short video I could watch?  Actually a commitment to dismantle white privilege – not to mention white supremacy – is a life long responsibility that will involve being very uncomfortable.  It will mean acknowledging that we white people have prospered in this system.  It will mean that we must pay close attention to what’s happening around us where we haven’t had to pay attention before.  Is there a person of color being dissed in line at the grocery store? Is there a young black man being roughed up beside his car after being pulled over?  Is there a brown family interested in buying the house next door?  Will I choose a person of color when I next look for a new doctor or dentist?  Will I be curious about the life experiences of my Native American neighbor, myTransgender cousin, my Asian colleague?

We don’t lack the resources or the imagination to dismantle oppressive systems – from everyday white supremacy out in the world to entrenched patriarchy in our congregations.

We just don’t want to do it.

Nevertheless . . . there are people out in the world who are willing to make the changes the world is clamoring for – in the name of love.  There are congregations that clearly see what is breaking God’s heart in their communities and they can no longer stand by and watch God’s children suffer.

These are the people, these are the congregations that will thrive after the marches have ended and the vaccine is discovered and the election is over.

We pray for melted hearts and open minds all around, for the love of God.  And we thank God for the brave people out there who are making sacrifices for the weak and vulnerable.

Image of Yolanda Pierce’s on-the-mark tweet from June 9, 2020

Beyond Diversity Training

Almost every for profit and non-profit institution requires some sort of Diversity Training these days.  (Just the words “Diversity Training” make many of us roll our eyes.)  I wish I had a dollar for every White Church Person who told me that they wanted their church to be more “diverse.” [Note: Churches with mostly People of Color never tell me they want to be more diverse.  Discuss.]

Edgar Villanueva has written:

“Diversity” is how white people talk about race when they don’t want to talk about race, but it also can mean the representation of any marginalized group including Indigenous people, women, queer folk, people with disabilities, immitrants, and people of particular regious or ethnic background.  It can mean people with different mindsets and values, or people of different ages and people from different parts of the country.

Healthy organizations look for the second part.  The “but it also can mean” part.

Some congregations tell me that they have no diversity in their churches because there’s no diversity in their town/neighborhood.  We forget that “diversity” includes skin colors – yes – but even the most homogeneous community has diversity in terms of physical abilities, ages, income, and life experiences.

But the bottom line here is that we White Church People lie about diversity:

  • We actually don’t want to be more inclusive unless that means that the “others” become like us and don’t ask us to change.
  • We are actually more interested in how we look than who we are.  “We have a Black administrative assistant” is often about optics. (My North Carolina siblings: remember that our state motto is To Be Rather Than to Seem.)
  • Even when we welcome a Person of Color on staff, we expect that person to be our consultant on All Things Racial rather than allow them to bring the full wealth of their gifts to the table with the power to influence our congregation’s culture.

Also from Edgar Villanueva:

Having a seat at the table is not the same as feeling free to speak in your own voice, to offer your own divergent ideas, to bring your full self to bear on the work.

There is a lot – a whole lot – of competative wokeness going on right now.  Yay for all of us who have marched, tweeted, and shared #BLM photos.  The most woke among us still have work to do in eradicating racism.

Let’s not fail in this amazing opportunity in the (almost) summer of 2020 to wrestle with the truth of who we are – White Churches – and who God has called us to be.  It’s not about optics.  It’s about inclusion and equity.

Read This Book

After my colleague WK recommended it, I picked up Edgar Villanueva’s book Decolonizing Wealth and it is everything.

Villanueva speaks to everything from the history of colonization as a political and philosophical practice to basic leadership skills to the sins of fake diversity training (“global bleaching”) to Native American history.

White People: this is required reading for us.  This is a book to grapple with personally and in groups.  This is a book that will make it impossible to continue life as usual.

If we are serious about doing more than marching or posting how woke we are, please read this book and then work to decolonize our culture – including the Church.

P.S. Also please read The Bible. Compare and contrast with Villanueva’s book for a very interesting conversation.