Kids and Prayer (DVD Giveaway)

Here it is: the biggest value of my giveaways this month: a free copy of the Kids and Prayer DVD (Protestant version) by Paraclete Press, in which I host four kid-friendly episodes about the basics of prayer. A $50 value! Enter to win by sending me an email with the subject “Prayer DVD” by Sunday May 28.

Even better: this week I’m blogging a series of program outlines with ideas on how to use Kids and Prayer to get your church praying this summer!

Many prayers and deep appreciation for the ways you will encourage a prayer-full summer in your faith communities. Be sure to enter this week’s drawing for a free copy of the Kids and Prayer DVD! All you need to do is drop me an email with the subject “Prayer DVD” and I’ll put your name in the hat. The drawing will be held at 5:00pm eastern on Sunday, May 28.

Dear White Preachers, Take Off Your Prophet’s Mantle

Dear White Preachers,

I have been watching and listening to your reflections on the task of preaching to predominantly white congregations in the wake of the non-indictments in New York City and Ferguson, in the wake of the powerful movement in the U.S. and around the world to affirm #BlackLivesMatter. I am not currently serving in a ministry setting that includes weekly preaching, so while I listen to your conversations I wonder what I might preach. The season of Advent is rich with scriptural longing for a world that has not yet been realized, for an appearance by God or God’s messengers in response to the world’s great need.

Advent and the daily news and — importantly — the persons in the pews all converge & commingle & require prayerful exegetical work by every preacher from Sunday to Sunday. I’m encouraged to witness the support being shared among you as you prepare sermons for such a time as this, and then as you offer affirmations to one another when you report on the impact of those preaching moments…

…And I confess that I am troubled by a particular word that recurs often in those post-sermon conversations, so let me offer this reflection and caution from one colleague to another: White preachers, we are not prophets.

That sermon you just preached on race to your predominantly white congregation was not prophetic. Admonishing America’s racist soul — or, taking the more pastoral approach, affirming God’s love for all people/the least of these/the poor & oppressed — in your sermons for two Sundays in a row is not prophetic. Your invitation to church folks to gather for a vigil in prayerful solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not prophetic. Naming directly the racism that you hear from congregants on Facebook or in person is not prophetic.

Yes, these actions may be hard to do in your context. Yes, these words may be rare in your place of ministry. Yes, you may feel uncomfortable or nervous or even fearful as you speak in these ways. Yes, there may be difficult conversations as a result. Yes, it’s possible that you could become a lightening rod for congregants’ tensions. Yes, there’s even a chance that your job stability could be risked. And yes, mustering the courage and Spirit to move past all those fears and to do something — whether preach or pray or protest — may qualify as brave.

But friends, these actions and these words do not make us prophetic.

Why not?

(1) Because we’re white. Let’s start there.

Because, as uncomfortable as you may feel naming race from the pulpit, it’s not your life that America is debating or devaluing. (Which isn’t to deny you the struggles you may have with America’s valuation of your life, but it is to distinguish and to recognize bluntly that your white life is not being killed by police at almost the same frequency as lynchings occurred in the Jim Crow era.)

Because we are uncomfortable saying “#BlackLivesMatter” clearly and unequivocally from the pulpit — think on that for a moment — and so we hedge and say #AllLivesMatter and we slip Eric Garner’s name into a pastoral prayer, thus concluding that we have spoken truth to power. Yet we are the power. You, my white colleague, are the power — by virtue of being part of the dominant culture and by virtue of your office, no matter who cuts your paycheck — so I ask you: Is “God loves everybody” a truth that challenges and upsets your power?

Because we haven’t done our own work on race and racism or not enough of it — we can never do enough work on it, white folks. Because we don’t know our place when the outcry is “Black power!”, so we cheer “No justice, no peace.” Because we’re uncomfortable standing next to our Black colleagues in solidarity, so we take a white buddy with us.

Because the movement isn’t about us. (See #2 below.) Because prophets are called out from among a people to speak to or on behalf of those same people — and white folks, we are not the people in question when it comes to #BlackLivesMatter. It is not about us. Yes, there is a response to #BlackLivesMatter that is incumbent upon white people, white ministers, white churches — but we are respondents to the message not prophets with the message. At best, white preachers repeat the message with a lens for how it will be received in our pews, challenging our churches (and ourselves) on the idea that our context is limited to our church walls or even to our geographic regions. But even when we relay that message effectively, friends, we are not prophetic.

Why aren’t we prophetic?

(2) Because we don’t tell our own stories. That “prophetic” sermon you gave? Did you mention Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Tanesha Anderson, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin? Did you tell a story about your (one) Black friend? Did you reflect aloud on — hear me closely & honestly, white colleagues — your own Black or brown child if you have an interracial family as I do?

When you told someone else’s story in your sermon — no matter how heartbreaking the story, no matter how personally close you are to the person — you (subconsciously) guaranteed that there was no risk to you. Maybe there was the risk of tears, maybe the risk of someone walking out, but there was no risk to your own whiteness. In fact, by highlighting someone else’s story as the primary illustration of race, you implicitly affirmed to your white congregation (even if they said they were offended), “See — I/we are not that.”

To be sure, the affirmation of #BlackLivesMatter necessitates the recognition that someone else has an experience of daily life that is other from our experience. Yet in our progressive white liberal resolve to know and to name (to consume*) the other story, we manage to avoid the more soul-searching question: “If we are not the other, then who are we?”

[“White identity…has remained largely exempt from examination or self-questioning.” And on *consumption: “Whiteness…has not come into being as a form of overcoming but rather as a form of plunder.” Both quotations from White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity by James W. Perkinson, pages 171 and 164 respectively.]

Wondering, then, what story to tell when you preach if not the other’s story? Tell your story, tell your church’s story, tell your community’s story of whiteness. I don’t mean your story of German-ness or your story of Norwegian-ness or your story of New England-ness (or whatever region has shaped you). I don’t mean your story of white guilt and liberal lament.

I mean that story of how you came to pastor a predominantly white church in a predominantly white town. That story of whether you noticed that the search committee that hired you was all-white; whether you preached your trial sermon and thought to yourself how odd it was to look out over a sea of white faces. That story of why a predominantly white town is a comfortable place for you to call home. That story of how the congregation feels good because mostly white isn’t all white, and how you feel affirmed to have three persons of color as members in the congregation thus confirming that you are a racially inclusive pastor and that the congregation knows how to welcome (allow) the other to sit among them.

Wondering what story to tell when you preach on race? Tell the story of how your congregation came to be predominantly white in the first place. Did the founders choose to establish a white faith community? Do your congregants remember those rare instances when a person or family of color visited on a Sunday, but “Of course they didn’t feel welcome here”? What are the stories of your church choosing — individually and collectively — not to see the non-white faces in the pews (“We don’t see color”) and in the community?

Tell the story of how your predominantly white town came to be so white in the first place. Was it a sundown town? Were there laws about who could own property where? Are there still implicit codes among local realtors about home ownership? Is the town predominantly white due to the displacement or slaughter or erasure-by-education of American Indians?

Before you stake your and your church’s identity on the dubious theological story of liberal do-good-ism and white saviour-ism, first excavate your story of participation in American racism and your removal (whether by conscious choice or unconscious default) from an integrated Kingdom of God, taking seriously that “one cannot partake in heritage a la carte.” By confessing our own, our churches’, our communities’ stories of whiteness, we do not make ourselves to be prophets but we begin to prove ourselves to be allies.

Friends, take a close look and a long listen. In the U.S. these days, the prophets are not in the pulpits. The prophets are in the streets. The prophets are staging die-ins and staring down police lines and shouting at city council meetings and organizing efforts to interrupt commuters and businesses and daily routines. The prophets are calling us to a new way of being — and not just calling, but making it happen.

We are not those prophets.

Though by our office as preachers it is our job to proclaim God’s word, we must be clear that this word, this movement, was not given to us by God to proclaim. Someone else — someones else — have the honor of proclaiming this particular day of the LORD and of calling all people to this particular repentance of racism.

When we call ourselves “prophets” for speaking against racism, we unintentionally reveal the very white privilege that we believe we are denouncing, for we plunder and steal the prophet’s mantle when it is not rightfully ours.

Friends, “prophet” is not a self-proclaimed title.

“Prophetic” is not a synonym for bravery.

The kingdom of God for which the true prophets are now in the streets crying out, demanding, will upend our white world no matter how much we believe ourselves to be allies. Perhaps we can participate in that coming kingdom, but we do so in a confessional posture…not a prophetic stance.

Monday Muse: Blame and Responsibility

From the Revised Common Lectionary readings for this coming Sunday, October 12:

The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, and of you I will make a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10, NRSV)

I wonder, sometimes, why God does not.

Consume us, that is. Burn against us. Unleash holy rage.

Surely we are no less stiff-necked than the ancient Israelites who melted their finest jewelry in order to cast in gold an image of a calf for worship. I might even suggest that we are more stiff-necked than our forebears in the wilderness, collectively rebellious and distracted by gleaming powers and tangible idols and systemic altars.

Why doesn’t God take us out?

In Exodus 32, Moses appeals to God’s reputation and vanity in order to convince God to relent from anger and spare the people. (Abraham made a similar appeal in Genesis 18:17-33.) Notice with Moses: God is ready to wipe the covenantal slate clean — screw that promise to make nations from the offspring of Abraham, God is going to start fresh with Moses. Moses turns down God’s offer in order to ask God to keep God’s covenant with the people.

(Sidebar: Who does that?? Who willingly says, “I will give up what you can do for me in order to see what you can do for others”? Footnote to the sidebar: the answer is not “Jesus,” for these reasons and more.)

I’m fascinated by the ongoing debate between Moses and God, Moses and the people, God and the people — not only here in Exodus 32 but going back at least as far as Exodus 16** — about who is responsible in the community when one party/person misbehaves.

A separate if related question to “Who is responsible?” is “Who is to blame?” which seeks to know who permitted and/or participated in the errant behavior and who consequently deserves punishment. In Exodus 32, the “blame” answer is Aaron and the people, who are made to drink gold-infused water in 32:20 and then further punished by massacre & plague in 32:27-28 & 32:35. One of those feel-good Bible moments.

I’m interested in the “Who is responsible?” question because of its repetition between God, Moses, and the people across so many chapters. “Who is responsible for holding a person/community accountable for errant behavior? Who is responsible for leading the way toward correction, healing and redemption?” Responsible = Response = Who responds in order to redress what has occurred? When the people act out and create their golden idol, for example, who is responsible for their discipline?

Moses and God draw straws over the question.

“They’re your people,” God says to Moses (Exodus 32:7). “No, they’re your people,” Moses says to God (32:11). They debate not to determine blame for the people’s actions but rather to determine responsibility for the hard work of discipline. If the ancient Israelites are Moses’ people, then Moses must take responsibility to “redirect” the people’s idol worship. If they are God’s people, then God must take responsibility to mend (or, given God’s proposal to Moses, dissolve) the covenant that the people have broken.

Pick any system of injustice or occasion of injury, and the easier question to answer (whether correctly or not) is who’s to blame. More difficult, it seems to me, is the question of responsibility: “Who will clean up the mess? Who will do the hard work of healing & reconciliation & justice within the community? Who will give up their privileges & comforts in order to make way for God’s work to and through others?”

By default, so very often, those who have already experienced injury are tasked with the responsibility for their own healing — those whose privileges and comforts have already been sacrificed — while those who made the mess (as well as those who consider themselves unaffected by it) provide analysis and critique.

Moses loses his debate with God over who is responsible for the people, and so he must do the work of cleaning up the mess: from the aforementioned massacre and plague and forced drinking of gold-infused water, but more than that. Moses spends chapters 33 & 34 laboring & negotiating with God not to abandon the covenant or the people. (Arguably chapters 35 – 40 are a continuation of Moses leading the people through the work of reconciliation with God as they prepare an elaborate tabernacle for God’s presence to travel with them through the wilderness.)

Moses puts in the hard work of repairing the people’s relationship to God, and God remains faithful to the covenant and to God’s reputation as “a God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Exodus 34:6)

Why doesn’t God take us out?

Perhaps because it’s not God’s responsibility to do so. In the flip of divine coin and the drawing of holy straws, we “lost” and God made us responsible for one another (Genesis 1:27-30) — commanding us to invest time in healing, reconciliation, and justice.

It’s God’s responsibility to uphold the covenant. It’s our responsibility to do the hard work of holding one another accountable to it.

 

**Exodus 16:6-8 Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “What are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.” (That is: “God is responsible for you, not us.”)

Exodus 20:2-3 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (“I am responsible for you, and don’t you forget it.”)

Exodus 20:18-19 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us or we will die.” (“Please, Moses, you be responsible for us because God is too scary.”)

Exodus 32:7 The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” (“Moses, they’re your people, not mine.”)

Exodus 32:11 But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” (“Um, no, those are your people, God, not mine.”)

A Prophetic Church (guest contributor)

The classic definition of the Church is found in the writings of Paul who proclaims “You are the body of Christ.” Most interpreters understand “You” to mean the Church. I understand the statement to mean, metaphorically, that the Church (however you definite it in terms of composition) is the physical presence of Christ in the world today. What the Church does, how the Church presents itself to the world is how the world regards Christ. If any part of the Church acts hatefully, violently, exclusively toward others then Christ and the Church as a whole are perceived as exclusive, violent, and insensitive. By the same token, when the Church reflects the love of Christ, both the Church and Christ are seen as compassionate and accepting.

As I see it, the Church’s task (and the task of every member) is to live out the teachings of Jesus. In that way, Jesus continues to live in the world today. Only those who attempt to reflect the acts and teachings of Jesus (including compassion, concern for those on the fringes of society, support for the poor, inclusiveness, forgiveness, etc.) can legitimately claim the name of “Christian” or use the title “Christian Church.” Others are merely “pretenders” who muddy the waters, confuse the world and are less than worthy of these titles.

Integral to living out the deeds and teachings of Christ, the Church is called to exercise a prophetic function in today’s world. The Old Testament prophets, despite some notable blind spots, acted as the conscience of both the religious and political institutions (leaders) of their time. The prophets constantly “called out” both groups when they considered either or both to be straying from the intent and purposes of YHWH. Like Jesus they stood on the side of the disenfranchised and oppressed, whoever and wherever they might be, and openly acted on their behalf.

This function as “conscience” is woefully missing in the modern Christian Church. We are not even able to exercise any degree of self-assessment or self-discipline — we rarely publicly “call out” any part of the Church body that is blatantly ignoring or denying the compassion, acceptance and love exhibited in the life and teachings of Christ.

Equally as important, the Church in America rarely performs the prophetic function, rarely acts as a “conscience,” in relation to the government. Performing that function is especially difficult in the United States because the Church — while giving lip service to the idea of “the separation of church and state” — has essentially “sold out” to the government by accepting, even demanding, the tax-exempt status offered to charitable institutions. In exchange for this “privilege,” the Church must remain politically neutral and refrain from publicly, openly taking political positions as such. Although there are covert ways to circumvent some of the restrictions imposed by this arrangement the Church, largely, has been politically neutralized in this country. (Note: I do not regard the so-called “religious right” as a church but see it as a political movement — a “wanna be,” if you will.) The Church is afraid to openly oppose or support the government or its policies and, in particular, support or oppose individual candidates for fear of losing its tax-exempt status which, for most Churches, would be a financial disaster. The United Church of Christ experienced anxiety over this issue a few years ago in connection with a speech given at its national conference by Barack Obama before he became a candidate for President; a potential IRS investigation and unfavorable ruling was quite worrisome to many.

By and large, the organized Church in America has chosen financial security over prophetic responsibility.

I recognize that the content of this “prophetic function” may be the subject of significant discussion and inevitable disagreement. (Although it seems clear to me that, consistent with the Old Testament prophets and with Christ himself, such prophetic content would minimally involve identification with the poor, the oppressed, the outcasts, and the marginalized in society.) I, for one, would rather have a spirited discussion about the content of such prophesy than forfeit the prophetic function, as the American Church for all intents and purposes has done.

(Guest contributor, Rev. Raymond Luber, is a minister in the United Church of Christ, a retired pastor, and former Editor-in-Chief of International Journal of Partial Hospitalization.)