September Chimes Article

**UPDATE – So, heart surgery and life have conspired against me these past two months. I’m a bit behind. This is last month’s newsletter. Look for a few more posts this week as I clear the backlog!**

Dear Friends,

As many of you know, Amelia and I served the Presbyterian Church in Mississippi and New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As August gives way to September, much of the nation will pause to remember September 11 as a national tragedy but fewer people will remember August 29, the day Katrina ripped ashore and changed a million lives forever. Both 9/11 and Katrina had profound impacts on my ministry. I’ll write about 9/11 on another day, though. For today, I want to share a picture I took on my first trip to Gulfport, Mississippi.

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Amelia and I moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Memorial Day weekend in 2006. I had traveled to the Coast with Alma College in January of 2006 and had seen the extensive damage and the first thing I wanted to do was to re-trace my steps from January. Would things be any better? Had progress been made? One of the first houses I went to was Tim’s house. He was well known in the area and I had seen his house on my first trip down. He had painted a poem on the side of his house that touched me. This photo is of his house and his heartfelt lament.

Sadly, after 9 months, nothing had changed for poor Tim, except that his house (which now sat three blocks from its foundation) had now begun to rot and sag.

Tim was eccentric from the beginning and he grew more so over time. Eventually he disappeared and none of the relief agencies could locate him. They tore this house down in 2007 and I’ve never heard of Tim again. Tim fell through the cracks and has come to symbolize much of what ministry means to me. “Who can I ask a little love for (to) warm my broken heart?” The answer should be the church. That is our calling in the Gospels – to proclaim God’s good news to the poor, the lame, the sick, the captive and the broken hearted.

I find Tim’s message especially urgent as we look south and again see flood waters ravaging Louisiana. This time the location is Baton Rouge – ironically, the high ground to which many of the Katrina survivors fled. The damage is unthinkable and the number of lives affected is staggering. The church must respond.

This is the kind of experience that brought me into ministry in the first place and it continues to shape my understanding of what it means to be a pastor. We evangelize not to grow our budget but in order to share Christ’s love with people like Tim: To heal their broken hearts. We do mission work not to evangelize but because Christ has called us to agents of restoration and reconciliation in the world. We worship God not from a position of fear of God or guilt, but from a place of deepest thanksgiving for all that God has blessed us with.

As the anniversary of Katrina looms large again, I ask that God continue to use Tim’s story to teach me and all those I encounter. Who is your “Tim?”

God Bless,

Gregory

Sneak Preview of August Chimes

Dear Friends,

Exploring Job has been an interesting project for me and I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have. It’s puzzling to me that the church doesn’t talk about Job so much more than we do. With themes of loss and suffering, and with it’s treatment of Job’s righteous anger, questioning and faithfulness, I feel like this book is universally accessible; it captures much of the human experience. One doesn’t need to suffer loss to the extent that Job did to understand his pain and suffering or to put one’s self in Job’s place.

I think that so often we dismiss Job as a source of wisdom because it leaves out the consolation Christ offers – salvation and eternal life. I was thinking about this when I discovered a challenge very much along these lines in the writings of Richard Rohr. He writes:

       But this life is all Job has, which is still the belief of many Jewish people. As a result, many Jews          take this world much more seriously than many Christians do. They often tend to involve                    themselves in correcting social injustices more than Christians and are not afraid of beauty, sex,        and dancing. ‘This is all we have; we have to make it into a good word. We have to be involved          in it. When we die, its over. This is it…’ 

        …Forget heaven and hell. Pretend that the day we die, that’s it. How many of us would bother          to study scripture at all? How many would even bother to be good? Our training in the reality of        heaven and hell has influenced our entire way of thinking, and not always for the good…fire              insurance is not happy or healthy religion.

Fire insurance is not happy or healthy religion. Ouch. This line has deeply affected me this month.

Americans have been powerfully challenged to deal with our deep-seated racism by recent police shootings and protests around the country; our presidential campaign has challenged us to think about immigration and who we identify as our neighbor; the pulse nightclub attack challenged us to think about the marginalized and vulnerable among us and begged us to consider the disease of gun violence plaguing so many of our communities…there is so much in need of attention and change in our country. What would it look like to take it more seriously? To forget the consolation of eternal life and acted as though this life were all we had, this world the only world we will ever know? Would we still tolerate some of these things? Likewise, what would it look like to embrace beauty and sexuality and dancing as not just pleasant distractions but as a part of our very faith. Wouldn’t it be great to live a life of faith like that?

This challenge from Job is one I intend to take seriously and take to prayer for a while. I hope you will likewise consider this challenge in your life. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

May this last month of summer be warm and grace-filled for you all. Peace be with you,

Gregory

On Claiming White Privilege and Confessing My Own Racism

Editor Note: On Sunday I had to leave that place of lament and numbness to address my congregation. Below are my remarks. I’ve been asked to share this sermon as a point of further conversation among the members of First Presbyterian Church of Chicago Heights. I hope you find something of worth in my jumbled attempt to make sense of the week that we just had. Peace.

Editor Note 2: Please note, I don’t write down a lot of my sermons. I work from bullet points. As I tried to remember my sermon as preached, this thing quickly got muddled. Muddled, and then really out of hand. The actual sermon was about 16 minutes long. This reads significantly longer. What’s recorded below is more like a bloviated paraphrase of my sermon. I still hope there is something of worth here. If not, just know, you probably had to be there.

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I’m not supposed to be here today. I’m supposed to be on vacation. I asked 11 people over a three week period to cover for me and not one could. At first I was irritated, but then we had the week we just had….and I realized that I needed to be here with you all. My place was here, talking about the week we just had…my place was with you – Either to comfort you or to afflict you but either way, my place was with you in this pulpit.

I’m not entirely sure what to say to you. Among the people I see this morning, there are some that I see who look at this week and see only more black men shot down by abusive police – victims of a racist system. Some of you see Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and you’re angry and scared.

There are some out there who only see the horror of police officers mowed down protecting a crowd, running towards the shots to protect people who were just protesting against them…and you see only an ugly anti-cop bias…and you don’t understand why anyone would want to hurt a police officer and you’re angry and scared.

And you’re both right.

And I don’t know how to speak to both of you. But I must. We must figure out how to bridge that gap and speak to one another because the soul of this nation depends on it. If we can’t do it here, in the context of worship, united in the belief that we are all children of God and covered by God’s grace, what hope does the rest of the nation have? We have to try.

You know, these same two texts appeared in the lectionary on July 14, 2013 and I preached on them. You probably don’t remember what happened that week; It was the week that George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin. It was another terrible week in the life of this country.

I began my sermon that morning comparing the story of Trayvon with the story of Marissa Alexander and I called my sermon A Tale of Two Justice Systems. You know all about how Zimmerman followed teenage Martin, instigated a confrontation and then killed him. Have you heard of Marissa Alexander, though?

Marissa Alexander struggled with an abusive ex- husband.She took a protective order out against him. She asked the courts to intercede. She tried to avoid him. None of it worked and he kept finding her, so she bought a gun. One day, she found herself once again trapped by this abusive man and fired a warning shot. Into the air. And for that, she was arrested. She rejected a plea bargain deal for three years in prison – three years! For firing a warning shot over his head –  and she was convicted on May 12th of 2013 . Though the state law allowed for a lesser sentence for first time offenders, of which Marissa was one, the judge in the case sentenced her to 20 years in prison. For firing a warning shot. For protecting herself from a man the state knew was dangerous.

I was preaching angry that morning. Oh, I was feeling a lot of frustration and righteous rage at the system. The Amos text was the perfect text to come up in the lectionary because its angry too. I grabbed that text with both hands.  But this morning I can’t summon that same anger. I don’t have the heart to preach Amos. If anything have only gotten worse. Eric Garner choked to death, Walter Scott Shot in the back while running, Tamir Rice shot to death for holding a toy gun in a state that allows open carry, Freddie Gray killed by negligence while in a police van…and I could keep going for some time…. Police killed more than 100 unarmed black men last year alone. In the three years since I last preached on these texts, it has become increasingly, alarmingly clear that there exists two americas and two different justice systems. And it has become increasingly clear that i’m part of the problem.

By the way – Its not just liberals saying this anymore. Some of you might hear this list of grievances and write me off as some naive, leftist but no less than Newt Gingrich, in an interview this week said this:  “It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years to get a sense of this…but If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.” Friends, he is describing white privilege. Newt wasn’t alone. Restate.com, a very conservative blog, and the Daily Caller both ran articles about America facing up to our legacy of racism and white supremacy in the same week. If even Restate and Newt Gingrich can recognize and name this, perhaps the church should begin to do so, as well.

To be black, to be Hispanic, to be a person of color… one lives outside of the justice afforded the rest of us.

But you don’t need a lecture from me and I’m not up for delivering one, anyway. I can quote you statistics all day long and if you don’t buy into white privilige, I won’t change your mind. As angry as I am, as heartbroken as I am, I realize that the Amos text on justice is but empty words on this morning of lament. They are out of place on this heavy morning.

Instead, I’m going to take a risk. I’m going to practice that wholehearted discipleship thing I talk so much about and I’m going to be vulnerable. One of the new co-moderators of our denomination issued a challenge to pastors this week. She wrote:

Okay, white family. Let me talk to you right quick…

For those of you who ask “How long?” or “How many times must this happen?” I’ll tell you precisely when it will stop. It will stop when people en masse are aware of the ways in which whiteness/white supremacy have shaped the way people of color are viewed, engaged, and treated in this world (even by other people of color). To come to this realization, however, white people will then have to be self-aware and convicted of the ways in which they have benefitted from and promulgated the lie of whiteness. As necessary as this is for the well-being of society, it is also an uncomfortable undertaking and there is literally nothing forcing white people to do it. White people, then, will likely have to create the force.

White people, you have heard it said that you must talk to other white people about racism, and you must. But don’t talk to them about their racism. Talk to them about YOUR racism. Talk to them about how you were socialized to view, talk to, and engage with people of color. Talk to them about the ways you’ve acted on that socialization. Talk to them about the lies you bought into. Talk about the struggles you continue to have in shedding the scales from your eyes. Don’t make it “their” problem. Understand it as your own problem, because it is. To not do this would put you in danger of being yet another well-intentioned racist, convinced of their own goodness and living a life wholly unexamined and unaccountable to anyone. We don’t need anymore of those. It’s confession time.

So I’ll confess.

I’m white. My great grandfather came over from Germany around 1905, so Im pretty sure that my family never participated in Amercian slavery. This is one of the great lies I’ve bought into. I often let that fact that my family is a recent arrival cover over the truth that my family benefits daily from the infrastructure, the economy and the culture this country built literally on the backs of slaves. I lie to myself about how I benefit from the legacy of slavery and the continued degradation of African Americans and people of color in this country. And so, I am a perpetuator of racial prejudice. As much as I wish that I wasn’t. I am so thoroughly privileged that, in the words of Jan Edmonton, I only notice it a tiny fraction of the time. Though, I’ll tell you this, moving to little village in 2008 really helped open my eyes to that privilege. I’ll talk about that some more in just a minute.

My first memory of being aware of race and the differences between whites and blacks was this awkward moment in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was my son’s age…about 5 or so. I was there with my brother, who was three, and we were eating cereal. Frosted Flakes.. I can still remember the pattern of the bowl and the taste of the cereal. My grandmother was going on a rant about how she used to call black people one (awful name) and then she had to call them (another awful name) and then (another awful name) and now she was being told she couldn’t even call them negroes. And she was offended. Like it was black people’s fault that they hadn’t consulted with her before they decided to fight back against the racist and terrorist labels that society used to put them in their place. That’s not the terrible part of the story, though. The terrible part is that no one corrected her, confronted her or even really disagreed with her.

Friends, I’ve been witness to some variation of that story hundreds of times in my life – where someone in a room full of white people will say something racist or degrading and no one has the courage to confront. We roll our eyes and look down at our desk and maybe we silently judge, but we let that racism live and breath and roam at will through the room.

Living in Little Village and being surrounded by people of color has been a reality check for me. Now, when I’m surrounded by white people, I notice the way our very language is steeped in white supremacy so much more. I’ve also been forced to confront the fact that I assume a lot of things that people of color cannot assume: I am not afraid of the police. I assume that I will not be shot if pulled over in my car with a broken tail light and that being killed by the cops isn’t even in the realm of possibility. I assume that when I walk into a fancy department store on Michigan Avenue, that I belong there and I expect that I won’t be tailed by security. I’m poor – I don’t belong in those stores! But I still expect to belong. I assume that I can get a loan if I need it and just the fact that I did get a loan (with my credit score!) in Little Village in 2008, when many of my Mexican neighbors were either being foreclosed on, evicted or turned down for a loan, demonstrates that my assumptions are right. I love my neighborhood and its one of the places I could afford to live in 2008 but the fact that I’m there is an example of Amelia and I benefiting from a racist system.

I assume that when I call the police, they will come. I also assume that when they come, they will actually help and that I won’t end up over the hood of their car, getting my pockets turned out. I’ve seen that happen to my neighbors too many times to count. One night, a neighbor of mine who has a real grudge against the gangs got shot. He is very confrontational and he has these two huge pitbulls and he will frequently walk right up to the guys with the guns and confront them. I really admire him. One night in the middle of winter, we heard him yelling and his dogs going crazy and then we heard what must have been ten shots. It was the middle of the night and I thought, they just killed Sheldon! I threw clothes and a hoodie on and ran down the block. He was standing on the corner, hand bleeding, screaming, they shot me! They shot me! Not long after that cops starting rolling past us real slow and he kept trying to flag them down. Not one would stop. Until, that it, I lowered my hood and they saw the white face. Then a cop stopped and got out.  I can’t pretend like that doesn’t happen. Not anymore.

So what do we do? We hear all the time that we should pray but that isn’t enough. Not for me.

First, I think we can start the hard work of admitting to our own privilege. We can start by no longer being silent when we hear white supremacy at work. We can start by acknowledging our own complicity in the racist systems that hold us all captive. For my skeptics out there – this doesn’t mean that we are all bad people. On the contrary, I try really hard to be a good person and I think I am a fundamentally decent human being…but I benefit from bad systems, I contribute to bad systems, I have been socialized and indoctrinated into a racist system. We need to learn to live in the tension between those two realities.

Starting in September, I will be asking the session to read Waking Up White with me and I want to invite any of you who would like to join us to do so. Watch my blog and the Chimes for more information on that in the weeks to come.

For my white folk out there, you need to talk about race with other white people. We need to take the stigma out of this conversation and we need to deal with our own fragility. This is our work to do and no one else.

This is the work we need to do…we will change the world when we learn to change ourselves. Our political leaders have failed us for too long on this issue and perhaps this is a place the church can lead. If we, with a common calling, a common baptism and a common savior, can learn to have these hard conversations, if we can be the change we want to see in the world, then maybe we can actually change the world. Or, at the very least, we can be faithful neighbors to one another. This is holy work. Thank you for letting me confess to you today. Let us pray…

A Time and a Season for Lament

I’ve been remiss. The idea of the blog is to react, if not in real time, then at least in approximate time, to events in the world and in the church. This is a place to expand upon what we talk about in church in long form. I’ve had two problems of late:

The first problem is my heart. Two Sundays ago I had a reoccurrence of A-fib that hospitalized me overnight and has led to a lot of doctors appointments. The a-fib is old hat but the hyperactive thyroid has been a twist!

The second is also heart related: Namely, the events of the last week have simply broken my heart. The death of Philander Castile and Alton Sterling filled me with a familiar anger and helplessness. Then, the massacre of 5 Dallas police officers left me numb. What can be said thats new, thats compelling, that contributes to a better world? I’ve struggled to find anything to say and so I haven’t said anything. And I think that’s ok. Preachers like to talk. White, male preachers especially love to talk. I’ve spent the last week just lamenting and I think scripture teaches that as an appropriate response as well. One cannot stay in that place indefinitely but its appropriate to give lament its due.

 

Faith. Or, My Struggle With Becoming

Faith. Or, My Struggle With Becoming

I’ve been reading Richard Rohr again, which always gets me into trouble.  I ran across something that speaks to a struggle I’ve been having lately. Rohr writes (and I have edited):

Faith is a word that points to an initial opening of the heart or the mind from our side…Faith is our small but necessary offering to any new change or encounter…

…Such an opening or re-opening is entirely necessary to help you make fresh starts or break through to new levels. You normally have to let go of the old and go through a stage of unknowing or confusion, before you can move to another level of awareness or new capacity. This staging and stepping-over is largely what we mean buy faith, and it explains why doubt and faith are correlative terms….

…Such movement is necessary in all encounters, relationships or intellectual breakthroughs, not just with the Divine. Human faith and religious faith are much the same except in their object or goal. What set us on the wrong path was making the object of religious faith “ideas” or doctrines instead of a person.”

I’ve experienced some things in my personal life which lead me to question…not orthodoxy but at least, Christian norms, which are heavily tied up with societal norms. When I try to talk about these things with other Christians, I often get some kind of recitation of the Apostles Creed or some doctrinal answer about why I should or should not believe a thing. Or even consider it.

Faith at this level is an (anti)intellectual game of follow the leader; Its all in the head but divorced from any of the rational answers that don’t maintain the status quo. And when I try to pray in this vein, I find that I can’t believe in God. Not if God is just a correct answer or a beautifully precise theorem or a rightly held belief. I just can’t do it. If faith is about “acting right,” then none of us are faithful if we are honest.

Faith as an opening up of self, however – that throws the doors open on the infinite and helps me feel the nearness of the Unknowable Divine. Faith as the journey through the Valley of Shit on the way towards Transformation…that fills me with hope that all of the suffering in this world and all of the struggle is not in vain.

I see signs of hope that the church, buried deep, has some understanding of this. Look at the church’s relationship to sexual orientation: After centuries of abuse and bigotry, gay members are becoming just members and gay ordination, gay rights and gay marriage are here to stay. The status quo of intolerance – much more a function of our socialization than any possible reading of the Gospels – is dying as we collectively move into a higher understanding of truth and we remember the truth that: people matter so much more than doctrine.

Despite these signs of hope, though, it seems the church is ever looking for new people to exclude and new ways to forget all that we have learned. The world and our culture is in one of those rare moments of immense and comprehensive change. We are in a meta-stage of unknowing and confusion. We are walking through the Death Valley of Valleys of Shit…and everything seems up for grabs, for negotiation, for redefinition. That is a scary place for the church, an institution that embodies stability and meaning for so many.

At least in the American church, angry voices are rising up to threaten our transgendered brothers and sisters as they step from the shadows to demand equal treatment. For weeks, the only Christian voices I heard on the radio or the TV were voices raised in rage that a transgendered person might use a Target bathroom. I hear a lot of back-palm dithering about gender fluid/gender queer/non binary identity among church folks – The nerve of them striving to known themselves and define themselves (for themselves) more precisely than previous generations. I’ve heard no less than three pastors talk in concerned, hush voices about polyamory. I’ve seen church ladies giggling about asexuality. I’ve had concerned parents worry about the message I am sending my son by letting him wear a dress. Fifty Shades of Grey (besides being insufferably bad prose) fueled an entire industry of concern trolls writing about the dangers of bdsm culture….as if any of these are new things (1) and as if its their business (2) and as if it stands between those people and their god (3). Because doctrine still trumps people so much of the time. Especially when we are uncomfortable with their choices/identity. Being right is still better then being a disciple. Because different is scary.

Sexuality is a hot button item but its not the only place we draw lines or where the status quo is downright harmful to the people we claim to serve. We single out foreign cultures, immigrants, single parents, and women, especially the women who do have kids and the women who choose not to have kids.  (oh my how we talk about women in the church still) I could keep going. There are still a million ways that people can be excluded in the church and so there are still a million secrets standing between members and true community.

This cultural shift we are enduring will eventually end my profession. Probably. Its hard to see how a church that is dependent on a professional clergy member can survive. That makes me sad. That’s also not to say that the church won’t survive. On the contrary, I believe it will and will thrive. It will just look different. And so, on the whole, I welcome the chaos and the uncertainty of this massive reorientation that we are experiencing. Rohr is right. This an such an amazing and life giving opportunity if we can be brave and grab on. We have the opportunity to make a fresh start; to come through this period of unknowing and confusion with a faith that is so much stronger, deeper and life-loving than ever before.

As I look at our General Assembly going on in Portland today, I see tiny glimmers of hope. I see a thousand different hearts opening and reopening. And I have hope. This has not always the case when I watched the events of previous General Assemblies.

That is the kind of faith that I’m on board with. Faith that picks you up and shakes you within an inch of your life and puts you down with the knowledge that you are tougher, more resilient and stronger than you ever knew. A faith that puts people first and worries less about the doctrine and dogma. A church that preaches release to the captives of every stripe. Even us.

Sneak Peek at This Week’s Chime’s Article

I have a confession to make: I am a news junkie. I studied political science in college and have been involved in a number of political actions in my life. I have a passion for social justice that informs and drives my ministry. However, this also means that I walk around broken-hearted much of the time! If you are a news junkie like me, chances are, this has been a very hard month for you. If you are like me, chances are you are feeling overwhelmed and discouraged today. If this is the case, then you are my target audience this month.

The Rev. Jan Edmiston, one of the new Co-Moderators of our denomination, is fond of asking congregations, “What is it in your community that breaks God’s heart?” It’s a way of connecting the work of the church with a local need that can be addressed. It’s a good question but one that has overwhelmed me as I’ve watched so much that breaks God’s heart on the national stage and in the local communities around us. Forty-nine dead and 50 wounded in Tampa and 13 dead and 42 hurt in Chicago on just this last Father’s Day Weekend; the injustice of the Stanford rapist in California and the reality that right here at home there is a sexual assault every 90 seconds. The creep of religious intolerance and xenophobia in our national elections and the reality of just how segregated our communities are here at home. I could go on and on. And on and on.

The issues are complicated and interconnected and they manifest differently in different localities but what breaks God’s heart here in Chicago Heights is the same thing that breaks God’s heart at large in our country.

I don’t claim to know all the solutions or even how all of these things are connected but I know that we are called to live lives that directly engage these heartaches. We are called to live lives that bring relief and grace and comfort to those afflicted and we are called to afflict those who are responsible for creating the conditions that allow these atrocities. That means talking about cultures of rape and toxic masculinity; that means developing meaningful relationships with people who are different and other – not to change them but to learn about them. That means being willing to have difficult conversations about guns and gun policy without letting our politics stand between us. It means that we must be willing to examine our own contributions to the problem and be willing to be transformed. Or, in other words, to use the language of whole-hearted discipleship, we must be willing to be courageous, vulnerable and connected. We must be willing to live our faith.

That will look different for different people. For some it might be volunteering at a women’s shelter and for others it means calling their elected representatives about an issue. For most of us it should mean voting but I hope that for all of us it means taking the effort to know our neighbors better and being courageous enough to speak up when we see injustices happen around us. This is the antidote to feeling overwhelmed and discouraged– to put our faith into practice and to live courageously. When we do that, good guys/gals win.

Follow up to my last sermon

In my sermon yesterday, I mentioned a blog post from Emmy Kegler. Emmy writes:

The problem with narrowing Christian faith to total forgiveness of sin without retribution or price is that it makes sin about the relationship between us and God — and forgets the relationship between us and neighbor. If the concern with sin is that it endangers our eternal salvation, we forget what our sin does to those we sin against. If the only prayer is “Forgive us,” we are no longer accountable to those we harm. We, suddenly, get to serve no sentence even for twenty minutes of degrading violence, no matter what damage it did to our forgotten victim.

Emmy’s deconstruction of King David and the way that she links it to modern day rape culture is well done and is a critical addition to the conversation the church so desperately needs to be having right now. Please, take the time to read the post in its entirety. The link is below.

Do You See This Woman?