Saturday, July 18, 2015

Naked under the spotlight

You’ve probably heard the cliché that says everyone has a book in them. I know beyond a doubt that everyone has a story in them worth telling, but I don’t know if everyone has a book in them. Since writing my recently released spiritual memoir, Threads: Pulling Meaning from the Tangled Mess, I'm thinking you have to be a little cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs to write your story down and lay it out there for the whole world to see. 

Anyone who writes a memoir worth reading has to be honest about who they are. I’ve tried hard to do that, so far as I’m able to see myself as I truly am. That’s a struggle for all of us. We can have a blind spot the size of Texas that keeps us from seeing the truth about ourselves. Growing older has diminished the size of that blind spot for me, so this was the right time for me to write my memoir. 

Although writing the book was somewhat cathartic for me, during the writing phase I didn’t think a whole lot about the reading phase. It wasn't until I was approaching submission for publication that I began thinking about the possibility of people actually reading this stuff. Holy crap!

I realized that I wasn’t only telling my story in this book. I was also telling the stories of people who have impacted my life along the way. Sometimes their stories were positive and other times, not so much. I went back through the book and did my best to disguise them by changing names, genders, occupations, etc. Of course, all those who lived through these stories with me will know exactly who I’m talking about, but those who weren’t a part of the stories won’t know the identities of the people I mention—at least that’s my hope. It's not my intention to malign anyone else in my book. However, the one person in the book whose identity I could not protect is me.

The closer the time came for Threads to be released, the more I started to panic, and I seriously thought about pulling the plug on the whole thing. Some people from my past, and perhaps even a few from my present, aren’t going to be happy with me. There will be those who wish I hadn’t mentioned them and those who wish I had. I imagine more than one pastor-type will cringe at my theology. Grammar Nazis will find errors. Thoughts that I have only shared with a select few people in my life will now be exposed to anyone who cares to read them. It’s terrifying. I’m one of those people who tries to live as if I don’t give a rat’s ass what other people think about me, but truth be told, I do give a rat’s ass. Over the past couple of weeks I've realized that both the rat and the ass on said rat are a lot larger than I'd like to admit.

Well, the deed has been done. My memoir is out there, and I feel like I’m standing naked under a spotlight for friends and strangers to scrutinize my every flaw. But here’s a thought that hadn’t occurred to me until this morning. Now that I have released it into the world, my book will take on a life of its own. I could control the writing of it, but I can’t control how it will be read. Yes, some people might not like what they read, and that’s okay. There also will be those who will. 

Here's what I need to remind myself. I didn’t write my memoir with reviews in mind, negative or positive. I wrote it because I had hoped that people of faith who struggle to find meaning in their lives might be encouraged by reading how another person of faith has struggled to find meaning in her life. That’s still my hope. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Can you see me?

Can you see me in this picture? Actually, I think I’m so far back that I haven’t turned the corner yet at the top of the hill. If you want to see pictures of me from the Moral Monday march against voter suppression on July 13, all you need to do is go to my Facebook page. There are pictures of me with clergy friends, with Lutheran friends, with Holy Trinity peeps… in every possible configuration and pose. It was quite a media event for users of smartphones. And yet, out of all the pictures from the day, my favorite is this one. Somewhere, I’m in that crowd of 6,000 people, although you can’t really pick me out. And that’s why I like it so much.

There was a moment before I headed out for the march yesterday when I was thinking, I don’t know if I’m up to this. I’m the kind of person who won’t go into a shopping area between Thanksgiving and Christmas because I hate crowds so much. And then there’s the heat. It drains me so that after ten minutes I feel like I can hardly move. Not my idea of a good time. But there was something in me that had to be there on Monday. If I had stayed home, nobody would have missed me. The march would have gone on without a hitch. But I would have missed being there. I would have missed the opportunity to walk with others who feel as passionately about justice as I do.

Not too long ago I went to a rally for 8,500 teaching assistants who will be losing their jobs because of budget cuts for public education in North Carolina. When I arrived at the rally I was asked, “Are you a teaching assistant?”

“No,” I said.

“Are you a teacher?”


“Do you have children in school?”

“No. I’m just here because I care.”

My words were met with a moment of silence followed by a quizzical look . . . and then a word of thanks.

This little exchange happened several times while I was at the rally and took a spot standing with a group of teaching assistants who were holding signs as the backdrop for a press conference. I didn’t have to be one of them to stand with them. I was glad to be just another face in the crowd.

We are all inspired by individuals who take a bold stand for what they believe in. People like Bree Newsome, who climbed a flagpole to remove the Confederate flag from the capital grounds in South Carolina, or Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani woman who is the youngest ever Nobel Prize winner for her courageous work promoting education for women. We hear their stories, and they we want to cheer or cry, or both.

I’ve come to see crowds the same way. Crowds uniting for a vision inspire me. Actually being part of a crowd is beyond inspiring. It is transcendent. When I’m part of a crowd and hear the rumbling of voices ready for change, and I see the determination in the eyes of others moving forward alongside me, I feel myself disappear in the flow of feet and faces. I’m thankful for the opportunity to get lost in a crowd of people like that. Even on a hellishly hot afternoon in North Carolina. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

How are you using your power?

In many ways, it’s power that drives our world. You can look at everything that happens with human beings and analyze it on the basis of power. Who has the power? How is being used? Who is being affected by it?

Look at the drama being played out with Donald Trump, for instance. A man drunk on his own power, if ever there was one. Lately, he has taken that power to a new level.

Consider the saga of the Confederate flag. It came to be seen as a symbol of white supremacy by many, and white supremacy has lost its power. So, the flag has come down on the capitol grounds in South Carolina. For those who have strong emotional ties to the Confederate flag, for whatever reason, seeing it come down signifies the loss of power. So, while some are celebrating, others are grieving and angry.

Is power a good thing or a bad thing? We are both drawn to it and repulsed by it.

We all have power, whether we want to recognize it or not. We may have authority, or influence. We may be able to say just the right thing or act just the right way to get what we want. Parents have power over their children. But then, children can also wield a certain amount of power over their parents. Clergy have power. Elected pubic officials have power. Medical professionals have power. Teachers. The hairdresser who comes at you with a pair of scissors in her hand. Customers at a place of business. We all find ourselves in situations where we have power and it’s important that we acknowledge that. If we don’t recognize the power we have, we run the risk of misusing it.

Last Sunday, we read about the beheading of John the Baptist in worship. It’s a story that’s all about power. Herod is motivated by pride; he doesn’t want to lose face in front of his dinner guests. The daughter wants to please others as she first dances for their pleasure and then turns to her mother to fulfill her desire. For her mother, retribution seems to be a driving force. All these varied motivations fuel their power.

Luther seminary professor Karoline Lewis wrote a wonderful blog about power last week:
When power’s starting point is money, the bottom line, rules, control, competition, manipulation—that’s not power. That’s bullying. That’s abuse. That’s nothing else than getting one’s way. That’s force. That’s coercion. That’s narcissism. And that kind of power leads to a head on a platter.

But that’s not the only way power can be used. Within God’s Reign things are different. Mark shows us this in his gospel, if we read the story of the beheading of John along with the story that follows in the text--the story of the feeding of the 5,000. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

Both stories are about people gathering for a meal. Both are about celebrations. But consider the contrast between feasts. The feeding of the 5,000 was everything Herod’s birthday bash was not. It was outdoors, in the open. It was not offered to the rich and powerful but to people who seemed to Jesus like sheep without a shepherd. The feast Jesus hosted started out with what looked like insurmountable scarcity, with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. But it ended up feeding everyone until their bellies were full and there were leftovers to spare. At this feast, all were welcome. No one checked them at the door before they could get in. And at the end of this feast, no life was taken. Instead, life was given. Extravagant, overflowing, abundant life for all.

That’s the kind of power that Jesus offers. And it’s the kind of power he calls us to practice in the world around us. It’s power that’s extended, not in taking, but in giving. Not in belittling, tearing down, or destroying others to build ourselves up, but in giving ourselves for the sake of the other. 

This may not look like power to the world around us, a world that is hell-bent on using power to dominate and control. But that’s not true power, from a Kingdom of God perspective. That’s a fear-based need to destroy others in a misguided reptilian drive toward self-preservation. Jesus’ power was the antithesis of that. He didn’t buy into the love of power; he bought into the power of love.

In one form or another, we’re all given power in this world. How will we use it?

This week, 30,000 Lutheran youth will be meeting for the Lutheran Youth Gathering. These are amazing, life-changing events that the ELCA puts on every three years. They have gotten into the pattern of holding these events, not in big glitzy cities, but they go to cities that are in trouble. Twice in a row, after Katrina, they went to New Orleans. This time they’re going to Detroit. They bring 30,000 people into the city to help the economy, but it’s more than that. During the event, participants engage in service projects in the community. They make a huge difference for the people in the city where they hold their gatherings. Believe me, the city of New Orleans loves our ELCA youth. And the people of Detroit are about to learn why. That’s using power in a Jesus way.

Today, a group of us from Holy Trinity will join forces with people from all around the state for a Moral Monday march in Winston-Salem. When people of faith come together to speak truth to power, that’s using power in a Jesus way.

At Holy Trinity, we support the students and teachers at Merry Oaks elementary school, where nearly the entire student population is living in poverty, and that’s using power in the Jesus way.

When we could make another person pay dearly for the harm they’ve done to us, and we choose to forgive them, the way we saw the families of the victims of the Charleston shooting forgive Dylann Roof, that’s using power the Jesus way.

When we have everything we need and could easily turn our backs on those who have nothing, and we choose to exercise generosity and compassion, that’s using power the Jesus way.

When we could easily hoard our time by only doing those things that are comfortable or enjoyable for us, and we choose to give our time to those who struggle on a daily basis, that’s using power the Jesus way.

How are you using the power you’ve been given?  

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Shaking the Dust

The sermon for July 5 at Holy Trinity.

Do you know that every morning last week, when I drove to our church building here on The Plaza, I never once wondered if it would still be standing when I got here? And yet, all across Charlotte there were pastors who did. In fact, there were pastors who spent the night in their churches to make sure nobody came along and set them on fire. Why wasn’t I worried for our church?

It’s just one more thing that white people don’t have to worry about because they’re white. Most of those things we take for granted. Like we assumed this building would be waiting for us today when we came to worship.

We’ve been talking a lot about race lately, and I know some people are getting tired of it. But we’ve been talking a lot about race lately because we haven’t talked enough about it in the past, and now we’re seeing where that’s gotten us. I know I hear a lot of white people say things like, “I’m colorblind. Race has nothing to do with me, I don’t ever think about it.” And the very fact that we believe that about ourselves is an example of our white privilege. We may not think about it. But I’ve been told by black people that they think about it every single day. The way we see the world is not the same.

I first realized that back when I was in college and took a black literature class. This would have been in the 70s. It was my first experience of being the only white person in the class. My classmates seemed to resent my being there, although I couldn’t understand why.

Near the end of the term, there was a lot of buzz about Nikki Giovanni coming to campus for a poetry reading and I decided to go.

It seemed that every black person on campus was there. I had never been in such company and admit that I felt a bit uncomfortable when I took my seat, looked around and saw no other white faces. I wondered if everyone in the room resented me for being there like the students in my Black Literature class seemed to.

Before Ms. Giovanni spoke, some music started playing and everyone rose to their feet. I joined them, although I had no idea what was happening.

Suddenly, I was surrounded by thousands of people who were singing a song I’d never heard before in my life. They all knew every single word, which they sang with conviction. What was this song? How did they all know it so well? Where had they learned it? And why had I never heard it before? I learned that it’s widely known as the Black National Anthem. Subsequently I’ve sung it myself. It’s in our Lutheran Hymnal—“Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

I went to class with my black classmates, but I knew nothing about their world. Until that moment, I had naïvely assumed our worlds were basically the same. But our worlds were not the same. They already knew that, and I didn’t. Maybe that’s why they resented my presence in their class.

Race is an issue in our country. And it’s high time we deal with it.

Now, there’s another issue that has come to the forefront of our consciousness as a nation the past couple weeks, and that’s marriage equality. For those of us who’ve been fighting for marriage equality, it’s something we’ve thought about every single day, much like a person of color thinks about race every single day. But for those who wished people whining about LGBT rights would go away, there was major head-in-the-sand syndrome going on so that when the Supreme Court decision was announced they acted like they never saw it coming. It’s been a rough couple of weeks for racists and homophobes.

Within our ELCA, since 2009 we’ve agreed to live with our differences about sexual orientation, and the Supreme Court decision has brought our discomfort with those who disagree with us out into the open. It’s hard to love people who clearly don’t accept you as a person, and it’s hard to know what to do with that. I’m also hearing from a number of people of color in our denomination who are fed up with being a part of a predominantly white church that seems clueless and doesn’t seem to want to change. Of course, our ELCA is a microcosm of the world around us.

What does it mean to follow Jesus in an environment like this? In today’s lesson from Mark, we learn that not everyone chose to follow Jesus. He went to his hometown and they flatly rejected him. When his disciples went out to share the good news, there were those who received their message warmly and others whom no amount of talking could convince. And what did Jesus advise them to do when they received that kind of resistance? Shake the dust off your feet and move on.

So, I’ve been thinking about what that would look like today. Many of us find ourselves in situations where there are those who oppose what we believe it means to follow Jesus. Often those who don’t see things the way we do also claim to follow Jesus. Sometimes they’re long-time friends and family members, and it’s painful.

It would be easy to conclude that shaking the dust from our feet means that we try not to let them bother us and ignore what they’re saying. But could that be what it means? Is that what Jesus did? Did he ignore the ones he disagreed with and spend all his time preaching to the choir? We know that with all the conflict between Jesus and those who opposed him, it was impossible for him to accomplish his mission and simply ignore the haters. Confronting the haters WAS his mission. And it landed him on a cross.

How many of you have ever, in your entire lifetime, told a joke or a story about black people that is derogatory? How many of you have ever heard a joke or story like that? When was the last time you heard one? Did you come back with a similar story of your own? Or did you laugh at the joke? Maybe you remained silent. That seems to be what most of us do. We may not laugh, but we don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, so we just let it go. And what do we communicate by our silence?

How many of us will have the courage and the conviction to say, “I’m offended by your joke and I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t tell those kind of jokes around me?” Remaining silent is not acceptable for those who are trying to follow Jesus in this world. It’s time to get serious about following Jesus and break our silence. I would add that the same thing can be said for jokes about immigrants, and gay people, jokes about people who drink too much, overweight people, mentally challenged people, and old folks—all of which seem to have become socially acceptable in our society. I can’t imagine that any of this would be acceptable to Jesus. And I certainly can’t imagine that he would ignore it.

Shaking the dust from our feet is not avoiding confrontation. So then, what does it mean for us?

I see Jesus telling his disciples to shake the dust from their feet as much about stewardship as anything else. We only have so much energy, and we have Jesus’ work to do in the world. We can’t hope to convince everyone to join us. It ain’t gonna happen. And we can’t expend all our energy on convincing them or waiting around for them to join us. That’s not why we’re here. We’re not here to convince the world that we’re right and everyone else is wrong. We’re here to follow the Jesus Way in the world. It’s the way of love, mercy, compassion and justice for all, not just people who are like us, but all, as in all. We can’t allow haters to drain us of our power. For the power we can claim is the power of God’s gracious love working in us and through us.

And so, we do our best to embody the love of God in the world around us, though our words and in our actions. We’re not perfect and sometimes we mess up. But we know what our mission is. When others don’t see things the way we do, it’s not our mission to change them. It’s our mission to let them know they’re just as loved as we are. Sometimes that love includes confrontation. And should they reject us, we shake the dust from our feet and move on. That may not mean that we physically distance ourselves from them, because that isn’t always possible. But we distance ourselves emotionally and spiritually—and we move on. We don’t allow them to weigh us down and hold us back from following the Jesus Way in the world.

As we walk through this world, every once in a while, it’s important to look down at our shoes.