The Luxury of Talking about Race

Two weeks ago, I led a conversation on race and faith, inviting participants to reflect on their experiences of race & ethnicity as well as on the ways that their church upbringings had (or hadn’t) equipped them to respond to racism. “Jesus loves the little children,” I said quoting the Sunday School song, “all the children of the world — red, brown, yellow, black, and white. We believe this, but do we live as though it’s true?”

Two weeks ago, we talked around church tables about Jesus and about loving everyone.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago Jesus had his neck broken in the back of a police van, and he later died. And over the last two weeks (not to mention the last three centuries), Jesus has been getting the shi* kicked out of him in the street for daring to cry out in protest, getting a face full of pepper spray for not toeing the lines of gentrification and curfew, getting publicly scolded for caring about people’s lives more than people’s businesses.

Two weeks ago, I led a conversation on race and faith while Jesus lay dying in Baltimore, and today I’m questioning the usefulness of talking about Jesus & talking about race in the church — specifically when the goal of those conversations is to help white folks talk about their experiences of & raise their questions about race without trespassing their threshold of defensiveness. Today I’m questioning the usefulness of talking about race & faith when those conversations don’t de-center and de-glorify whiteness.

Too much is at stake for all of us — but especially for our brothers & sisters of color — to tolerate or facilitate easy conversations on race any longer.

Too much is at stake for the Body of Christ as it is threatened, arrested, barricaded by police & by school-to-prison pipelines & by systems of poverty, killed outright or killed slowly across a lifetime, while so many of us whites are still seeing whether we can make time for and whether we can find courage for talking about race.

Too much is at stake for us whites to hide behind our best Christian words, our best liberal words without also listening to non-white words & stories. Too much is at stake for us to pray for consolation without also preaching for confession. Too much is at stake for us to avoid the conversations altogether. But most of all, too much is at stake for us to continue to treat talking about race as a luxury to be engaged or not.

To Jesus who is standing unarmed in the street, staring down hell in its full force, words and time have no such luxury.

To Jesus who is tossing tables, to Jesus who is cursing the fruitless fig tree, to Jesus who says “Get up and go,” to Jesus who says “I did not come to bring peace,” conversations about race that do not result in conversions about race miss the urgency of the Gospel.

To Jesus who is sitting in the pews of our predominantly white churches, sitting there for worship but missing an arm & a leg & a heart & an ear because “local context” means that the Body of Christ has been separated from itself across lines of race — to that torn-apart Jesus in our pews, the choice to engage the conversation on race is truly a choice between life and death.

Two weeks ago, Jesus had his neck broken and died.

Today, we dare not take the luxury of not talking about it.

One Hundred & Baltimore

If the Spirit did not sigh for us, over us,
I wonder who would.

Who would hear our stories in their rawest honesty
and sigh in agreement, “Never again”?

Who would sit with us in the silence of shadows
and trace the dust of memories?

Who would hold out the bottle in an act of grace
saying, “Poured out for you,
in remembrance of them”?

Who would light the candles with us, each flame
representing one too many?

If the Spirit did not sigh for us, over us,
I wonder who would.

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Monday Muse: Hear My Prayer

Listen.

Sssssshhhh. Really, just listen.

Listen to the Psalms. Listen to all one hundred fifty of these ancient prayers — one psalm after another, one voice after another, without music or interlude, without commentary or homily. Just ssssshhh, listen and let the Psalms settle over your spirit with Hear My Prayer: The Audio Book of Psalms (Paraclete Press 2015).

hear-my-prayerIt matters that we give voice to Scripture. And it matters that we listen to Scripture, not only with the ears of our hearts but also with the ears of our bodies, so that flesh and spirit hear together. Listening to the many different voices of Hear My Prayer, I realize this again. When lifted from the page to the ear, the Psalms come alive with emotion and we are reminded that prayer is the embodied expression of our lives to the Holy One. In the voices of Hear My Prayer, the Psalms echo with the joy and the gentleness, the sorrow and the trust of this thing called faith.

Listening to Hear My Prayer, individual psalms suddenly catch my ear and I wonder, “Have I never heard or read this psalm?!” Through the voice of Paula Huston, for example, Psalm 102 is surprisingly ethereal as I imagine God’s celestial perspective on the nations of the earth and on the fleeting nature of my days. Meanwhile Psalm 10, read by Jack Levison, sighs anew to my spirit. And Paul Quenon’s articulation of certain psalms reminds me of the rhythm of our prayers, of the ways that our hearts’ murmurs weave and dance and sway to the ear of God.

Then there is this line from Psalm 45, read by Margaret Manning Shull: “My tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe” — oh! how have I missed the delight of this verse until now?

Hear My Prayer: The Audio Book of Psalms is an unexpected gift to my spirit. I who unapologetically surround myself constantly with sound — music at work, music in the car, television at home, conversations with colleagues and family and friends, plus the constant “noise” of social media — I find surprisingly restful stillness in listening to this collection of voices, to this collection of ancient prayers, to the spaces of silence around each word, to the calming tempo and timbre of the psalms given voice.

In full disclosure as I commend this newly-released audio book to you, I had the pleasure of recording three of the psalms for Hear My Prayer. And, in full disclosure, I’m really just one of the “ordinary Christians” of the audio book’s description: “The Psalms were written by human beings, and here, they are read by human beings — a wide range of ordinary and extraordinary Christians.” The list of more extraordinary readers includes such notables as James Martin SJ and Joan Chittister, Scot McKnight and Cathleen Falsani.

I pray that you will be blessed by Hear My Prayer as I have been.

A Fool for Beauty

I am a fool for your beauty —

the way you stretch yourself out

like the clear blue sky

with nothing to hide,

nothing to hold back;

the way you are manifest in the earth

with mountains for hips

a smile in blues & yellows

the relaxed river your strength & gentleness

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You are too beautiful, my God,

and you turn my head

with the winks of stars

the echoed longing of geese

the rich red your dusty flesh;

you spin me about in wonder

until I am swept up in joy

giddy to touch you and

awed to call you handsome

Monday Muse: Echo Still

echostillFor the first time in long time, I read a YA novel this spring: Echo Still by my friend and colleague Tim Tibbitts.

It’s also the first time in a long time that I’ve pulled my head out from mounds of church-related books & papers to simply read a story about people.

And Echo Still is a simply beautiful story about people.

Echo Still is the kind of book you buy for your preteen or teen but secretly borrow to read for yourself. The story finds Elijah (nicknamed Fig) navigating the everyday highs and lows of seventh grade: with a love of soccer, an apathy toward homework, a disinterest in bar mitzvah classes, and an envy of other kids who seem to have life a little easier … but also with the incomplete knowledge of his mother who died from cancer and the odd particularities of a grandmother who comes to visit.

A quick read, Echo Still nevertheless conveys an emotional depth and a reality in relationships that had me reaching for the tissue box more than once. Tim Tibbitts paints a touching portrait of how familial love falls down, finds its footing, storms and rages, despairs, and shows up all over again — all in the most ordinary moments.

It’s the kind of book that makes me believe we might all be okay in the end, despite our brokenness.