Lent 7 (Counting)

Cry, sister,
cry through the long nights
when the moon alone is a willing friend
who will name the hard truth that
God has left us
alone
to count the stars
to count the days
to count the lives
317 days too many
every hashtag 1 too many
300 billion stars too many
with their blinking silence
with their ethereal beauty
that only magnifies the pain
of our solitude
far away
from God
who has gone out
wandering
to count the steps
to count the days
to count the lives
that measure promises
broken and sins
unrepented
Cry, sister,
cry loud and long
in the hopes that
your lament will echo
across the wilderness
to the shade of a bramble
where God is resting
weary
from measuring
the depths of sin
and brokenness
from traversing
the distance between
loving kindness and
single-minded violence
the length and breadth of which
are finally beyond
even God’s
counting

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: World Communion Liturgy

World Communion Sunday (October 5th this year) is an annual ecumenical celebration in some mainline American denominations, originating from a time in history when the spirit of ecumenism in American Christianity was high and global concern was heightened by the World Wars. The event served to remind American churches of their unity around Christ’s table with Christians in neighboring churches, neighboring towns, neighboring countries, and all around the world.

Today, the celebration of World Communion Sunday has spread globally, although it is not a universal liturgical event. In past years and former ministry settings on World Communion Sunday, I’ve crafted liturgies that rejoice in the diverse unity of Christ’s Body across time zones and geographies. I’ve served naan and rice cakes, rye bread and corn muffins. I’ve poured Japanese sake and French wine. I’ve said, “In Christ, we are one!” And I’ve meant it.

In light of national and international events, however, this year I find myself wondering about the ability of the American Church — specifically the White American Church — to give witness to and authentically celebrate World Communion Sunday. If you read “Do White Christians Care Enough About Racial Justice to Make It an American Reality?” or any number of insightful critiques of the White American Church, you’re aware that the White Church isn’t exactly running toward racial justice and inclusivity with open arms. Can we proclaim truthfully on World Communion Sunday, “In Christ, we are one!” when we are unwilling to live this way?

With these wonderings in mind, I offer a confessional World Communion liturgy for the White American Church:

INVITATION

The table is set. The feast is ready.
We are here! We are ready!
Where are your sisters? Where are your brothers?
They have their own tables. Let us eat.
Our community is incomplete.
Christ will make us whole.
Christ our Lord is broken. Let us pray.

COMMUNION PRAYER

God be beyond you.
God be beyond us.
Make your hearts humble.
We are humble before God.
Let us confess to God Most High.
It is right to concede our sins to God.

You are beautiful, O Christ, in all your people and in all the world. But we have failed to affirm your beauty and presence in others, certain that we were good enough to be your Body by ourselves. We have neglected to welcome brothers and sisters at our table. We have neglected to meet you outside our church walls and social circles.

How we are missing out on the diversity of you! How we are missing out on the fullness of your love! How we are missing out on the depth of your grace in the work of listening to and understanding one another!

In the flesh of Jesus, a Middle Eastern man, a man born into poverty, a man who roamed with a gang, a man who inconvenienced the status quo with his protests against injustice, a man who welcomed the dirty and the sick and the foreign and the cast-out, in Jesus Christ you reveal to us the brokenness of your heart. In Jesus Christ, you reveal to us the brokenness of ourselves.

We are broken and torn, splintered and disjointed as we gather at your table. Our prayers of compassion lack commitment to reconciliation. Our songs of praise lack a diversity of voices. We dare not sing or pray before you, so entrenched are we in our sin. Instead we wait in silence, listening as “Holy, holy, holy” is sung by your people around the world. [silence is kept]

BLESSING OF ELEMENTS

We remember that Jesus’ closest friends did not know how to stand by him when violence and injustice threatened his life. Yet even as his allies failed him, Jesus invited them to sit at the table and to dine with him, saying: “Take, eat. This bread is my body, broken into pieces like you. Take, drink. This cup is my blood, spilled out on the earth. As often as you divide yourselves, remember me. As often as you kill one another, remember me.”

O God, by your grace, bless this naan and cornbread and pita to our bitter remembrance. Multiple this sake and wine and sparkling cider with our humble repentance. Do not withhold your Spirit from this bread and cup and each of us, but stir among us for the purpose of healing. Then while our hearts are still tender, change us to be more like your Body — beautifully diverse, willing to be pieced together in new ways alongside our sisters and brothers, until at last we bring glory to you. Amen.

Take, eat.
The bread of brokenness.

Take, drink.
The cup of reconciliation.

Summer Reading: Streams Run Uphill

We need each other’s voices. We do not need numbers. We do not need quotas. We do not even need goals or standards. We need each other. We need each other’s experiences. We need each other’s dreams. We need each other’s stories. (64-65)

51c+Dw5+FeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Church would do well to listen to the stories of Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Young Clergywomen of Color (Judson Press 2014), edited by Mihee Kim-Kort. In these pages there is camaraderie for women of color striving to answer God’s call into ministry. In these pages there is truth-telling about the Church’s conflicted intentions toward diversity. In these pages there is affirmation of God’s gifts of and through the particularities of our flesh — age, gender, culture, language. In these pages there is dedication to the struggle, to the uphill swim, of living into the Kingdom of God.

Sometimes I wish I could just hang out with people like me. But ministry was never meant to be that way. Ministry is not a social club. Most of us are not called to minister to sameness. … Ministry is often a constant cross-cultural exercise, with each ministry setting having a unique culture shaped by its history and identity. (53-54)

My copy of Streams Run Uphill is heavily dog-eared and underlined — places where I paused to listen more closely, moments when I resonated with the joys & struggles of ministry, words that lingered to challenge me. I feel simultaneously encouraged and disheartened by the stories shared by clergywomen whose divine call and ministerial leadership were/are received by the Church through the harsh filters of racism, sexism, ageism, and general xenophobia. Through their stories and their ministries, these clergywomen are leading the way toward a vision of wholeness as one diverse Body of Christ. In order to follow their lead, Streams Run Uphill is a must-read.

Where streams run uphill, there a woman rules.
(Ethiopian proverb)