racism won’t dismantle itself

For people committed to racial reconciliation, the past few weeks have been incredibly hard to witness. The news of Ahmaud Arbery’s lynching in Georgia, which took place months ago but just recently came to the attention of many of us. The racial profiling of Christian Cooper in Central Park. The death in March of Breonna Taylor, an EMT shot to death in Louisville by police officers who entered her home. The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

All these stories, one would think, would so scandalize us that even the most hard-hearted among us could see that there is a toxic, destructive pattern on display here: the steady enforcement of whiteness in its many forms (privilege, power, supremacy and more) through the continued displacement and diminishment of people of color. One would think and hope that such close public scrutiny would lead to less, not more, instances of racial violence. Yet that does not seem to be the case, as we see once again this week in the death of George Floyd, who died when a police officer knelt on his neck despite Floyd’s entreaties that he could not breathe.

The result of these acts of violence is the diminishment of the dignity, rights and personhood of people of color. As my heart breaks for the victims, I also find myself angry. How would I feel if I felt my children did not have the same opportunities and rights that others did, simply because of the color of their skin? How would I feel if I had to take my life into my hands each time I went jogging…or even simply sat in my own apartment? How would I feel if I knew that if someone attacked me, or even murdered me, that if they were a white person of status then there would be no justice for me? How would I feel if I had to have “the talk” with my son, to warn him that he will be treated with a measure of condescension and hostility simply for making his way in the world?

I don’t have to have those talks, because I am white.

We are all on a journey, and mine includes a growing knowledge of what “whiteness” means. But here’s what’s making me angry today: I’m not the only person talking about racism and whiteness, and a great many speak of it more frequently and courageously than I ever will. Yet are things changing? It’s almost as if, the more we identify the sources and the tributaries of racist violence – which, by the way, are almost always packaged in race-neutral euphemisms like “riot” and “thug” – the more the powers of enforcement raise their voices to stop the flow of reconciliation, to interrupt the process of healing before anything can really change.

And so, I am angry. Not as angry as I might be if my skin were black, but angry at the white folks who taught me and all of us to live this way, and angry at myself for claiming this birthright uncritically for so many years. And I do not begrudge the anger of black people in light of this seemingly perpetual violence. I can hardly imagine a response that didn’t result in passionate, angry, tearful protest.

“Righteousness” means being in right balance with God and neighbor. Ours is a profoundly un-righteous society, and unless we can gather up the courage to claim our responsibility before God and one another we will struggle to draw back into right balance with one another. But I find hope in the very unfamiliarity of this: we have never known what a reconciled community looks like, because we swim in the polluted waters of centuries-old racist structures. I would like to believe that those structures are crumbling, perhaps more rapidly than we realize, and that the violence we see is the old order trying to enforce itself back into perpetuity.

That is my hope, but it’s neither a foregone conclusion that we will heal nor that we are resigned to live this way forever. We cannot be reconciled without the grace and presence of God. And yet, a racist structure isn’t going to dismantle itself…we must bring our anger, hope, vulnerability, courage, and commitment to it. We must see, each time racism raises its head, that it is a mortal enemy that seeks to devour us all. And we must find, deep beneath our broken heritage, and even beneath the anger that enables us to fight against it, a well of compassion and love for all the children of God.

transcending contempt

Contempt is eating us alive right now. There is another way.

My sermon for February 16, 2020.

A couple of weeks ago Arthur Brooks addressed the national prayer breakfast. I realize that the President’s remarks are what made the news, but perhaps some of you saw what Brooks said when he shared it in the Washington Post a few days later.  Brooks is, by his own description, a conservative who was raised by liberals who “were Christian people, who raised me to follow Jesus.” He went a different way, as he said, at “great inconvenience to them” but his point was that we can see things different ways and still love each other and that, despite what we’re being taught these days it’s not actually all that hard.

But that message – that we cannot love one another in difference – has become so consuming and so viral, our alternative reality has become so dominant, that we have reached a point where a soul crisis has become a national crisis. He said, “I am here today to talk about the crisis of contempt – the polarization that is tearing our society apart.”[i]  Later he gives a definition of what he means, using Arthur Schopenhauer’s definition of contempt as “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”

That word contempt caught my attention because I had just the week before read something that Bishop Robert Wright of the Diocese of Atlanta had written in an essay on preaching on the issues of the day. He was speaking to ministers and preachers with the task of speaking good news in a time when it’s hard to see it, to speak prophetically at some times and pastorally at others and at all times remain focused on the ultimate commitment to bring us all to maturity in Christ.

Bishop Wright started at a place I didn’t expect – not at prophecy, but at a kind of exorcism. He said that “what is necessary here is that you and I begin the slow and essential work of coughing up the asphyxiating mucus of contempt for one another.” He goes on to speak of how he intentionally listens to media on both sides of the spectrum, including some of the most more extreme voices. He said,

I listen to both because my diocese listens to one or the other. What I have learned is that both news sources share a spirit of contempt for the core constituency of the other…Both are trafficking in a substance more addictive than opioids – contempt. [ii]

The crisis of contempt. The demon opioid of contempt.  And to that I would add what Jesus said about it, right here in today’s gospel. You have heard it said since ancient times, those who murder will be liable to judgment. But if your anger leads you to insult a sister or a brother, then what’s going on in your heart is also sin…and if you say, “you fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. Jesus was proclaiming a higher law in saying that what goes on in your heart and your mind matters, and that the insults we level at others are the sign and symptom of a deeper contempt.

Why does this matter? Because contempt and love cannot coexist. They can fight for one another for space and oxygen, but in the end they are not compatible. If contempt rules our hearts, then love is kept at bay. And when we do not love, we give up the power we have to change the world.

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This is some of the most challenging stuff in the gospel, because we are accountable not just for our actions, but for the inmost thoughts of our hearts. At first glance, this is terrifying. If sin is about not doings thing that are obviously wrong, them most of us at most times can stay in the right lane.  Jesus says, “you shall not murder,” and I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good at not murdering. I’m 100%. But suddenly Jesus tells us that I am also accountable to God and to my neighbor for what I think and what I feel, that these inward movements my soul are at play when I speak, when act, and when I worship.

Years ago George A. Buttrick wrote that God sees the inmost motive, and must be worshiped in truth – worship being the crowing act of life; and a heart harried by grudges cannot offer any wholeness of adoration[iii]. A heart harried by grudges cannot offer wholeness of adoration.

Our contempt hurts us as much as it hurts the object of our scorn.  But the point here is not to punish us for our inmost wrongdoing, but to name something insidious that crowds out the goodness and love that forms us in God’s image.  The other side to this is that through Jesus we can heal from our contempt, we can go into recovery: we can see it, confess it, and actually get better. We can see how contempt warps us and keeps us from doing God’s work in the world.

In fact – and this is a key part of understanding what contempt is and how to fight it – there’s a very quick way of dealing with it. Jesus says, simply, go to the brother or sister who you’re mad at, and be reconciled.  It assumes a world where two people can come together quickly and begin the process of healing, because when they see one another, face to face and with an inclination to love despite differences, they may not come to perfect agreement but they are able to cast out that demon of contempt and return to the altar together.

Understand that when I speak of contempt I’m not speaking about righteous anger, or prophetic speech, or critical thought, all of which are essential to building the beloved community. If those two at the altar have a surface-level reconciliation but one still lords power over the other, then we haven’t solved the problem.  Rather, I’m talking about when we drift into the “unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another” and stay in that seductive place, not only because contempt weighs down our hearts, but because it also dilutes our power.

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I actually think that Jesus’ prohibition of contempt has a lot to say to us about power.  It’s what I wish Brooks had talked about at the prayer breakfast, because he lifted up two opposing views of the world – contempt on one side, and love and neighborliness on the other.  As people of faith who live in the world, we have to name that both of these their own relationship to power, and that just as contempt and love will battle for control of our own souls, I believe that contempt and neighborliness are two very different forms of power that are fighting to rule our hearts as well as order our lives.

I think we despair in moments when we feel that contempt is winning.

And you know what? I think it is winning.  It’s winning because it’s a proven strategy for gaining and holding power.  Rallying around the worthlessness of others is a really quick way to exploit folks’ fears so that we can gain and hold on to power and privilege. Terrifying movements have been built around this, nations formed and wars fought.

Contempt is so easy, and it has incredible staying power.  It uses fear and anger and laziness for fuel. You don’t have to weaponize it…it comes out of the box that way. And it makes us incredibly vulnerable…if contempt is what rules our hearts, we’ll fall for the first delicious poke that comes across our self-selected news feed, and we’ll pass it along without questioning it.  Another vote for contempt rather than love, another brick in the wall that separates us from our neighbors.

The surprising things about contempt, though, is that while it’s really good at building the kind of power that gathers like unto like and separates the rest, it’s actually surprisingly fragile. All it takes is for two people who are angry with one another – going back to Jesus’ example – to see one another as children of God and to love them as children of God. This is the kind of power that love has. It’s real. And we know, because the world tells us this, that this kind of work often takes generations, “because that’s how the world works.” But the secret of love (and it really isn’t all that secret) is that that isn’t actually how the world works.  When two people who are inclined to love one another finally get in that room together, it can also take, like, 10 minutes. It’s actually isn’t that hard. Because we know, as followers of Jesus, love eats contempt for breakfast.

And that’s why contempt needs walls. Brick by brick, that power stays where it is. And when we respond to contempt with contempt, we don’t knock down the wall, as we like to think, as if the right insult or the snarkiest tweet will change the game. What we do is add a brick to another wall, which only separates us further from the power to transform the world.

When we respond to insults with insults, when our despair and feelings of powerlessness leads us to drift off into the muzzy opioid-sleep of contempt, we give away the power that we have in Christ, power that is grounded in love and given to us by God so that we can live life in its fullness and so that we can be agents of healing in this world. So let me ask you…before you let the soothing burn of contempt take residence in your gut…let me ask you…do you have power that you can afford to give away right now?

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I do believe that contempt is winning these days, but I don’t believe for a minute that we are stuck with that. I know that love and neighborliness have a power all their own, and that connecting to that brings us both hope and healing.

What can the world look like when we build on the power of love rather than the things that divide us? In a couple of weeks, Thursday, February 27 (The day after Ash Wednesday, so a perfect way to start Lent) Trinity Cathedral will join people of faith from across the city at a Greater Cleveland Congregations community action in support of two pre-charge mental health clinics. We are seeking the creation of two diversion centers – one on the east side, and one on the west – so that when police encounter folk whose substance abuse or mental illness flareups result in minor offenses they can take them for in-patient treatment rather than being charged as criminals. Imagine, something that discourages further marginalization of those already suffering, something that costs the county far less, something that gives treatment for the mentally ill and frees the police to deal with more serious crimes.

When we come together on Thursday the 27th we will see first-hand what power based on love can look like. Love honors the integrity and humanity of everyone involved – those who are ill or addicted, the police, the victims of crimes. Love does not remain silent or complicit, but it refuses to eat the poison pill of contempt.

I hope you’ll join us, I hope you’ll be a part of this because the more of us go, the more we see how power that comes from love of neighbor and faith in God can transform and heal our world.

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Contempt will always be with us, and even though Jesus put it its proper place we are wise to see and name the power it can have over us. The crisis of contempt that Arthur Brooks names is that right now, contempt is winning.   But we know  that love will always cast it out, if we can name it and if we can dismantle the walls that keep us separated from one another.  Sometimes that is the work of lifetimes, but sometimes it is quick work indeed. Never underestimate the power of love, and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform hearts.

Brooks is hopeful, and so am I. In fact he charges us all to be missionaries, he sends us out as people of love: he says, Go out looking for contempt so you have the opportunity answer it with love. (It’s a surprisingly Buddhist statement for a conservative Christian, but then again that’s what happens when we get down to core truths.)  Don’t just hang out in spaces where folks agree, and don’t go with an expectation to convince or even be welcomed, but only to love. “Missionaries,” he says, “go where they are needed. It’s hard work, and there’s lots of rejection involved (here are words that have never been uttered: “oh good, there are missionaries on the porch.”) But it’s the most joyful type of work, isn’t it?”

I agree.. This is joyful work. It’s hard work, and there are many temptations along the way. Don’t wall yourself in. Don’t give away your power.  Don’t let contempt cloud your soul. That’s the place designed to hold the presence of God, that’s the place from which God breathes words of healing and hope into a world collapsing under the weight of its own contempt.

The greater power is love.

The Very Rev. Bernard J. Owens, Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio, Feb 16, 2020.                 The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A.

@bernardjowens

[i] Arthur C. Brooks, “America’s Crisis of Contempt,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/02/07/arthur-brooks-national-prayer-breakfast-speech/?arc404=true

[ii] The Rt. Rev. Robert C. Wright, Preaching on the Issues of the Day, Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2019, p. 119. 

[iii] George A. Buttrick, The Interpreter’s Bible: The Gospel of Matthew

visions of religious freedom

Perhaps it’s fitting that in the same week we officially start the 2020 presidential election campaign we also commemorate a priest and civic leader who helped shaped a vision of the proper relationship between church and state.

Born in 1603, Roger Williams was an ordained priest in the Church of England who opposed the autocratic high church-policies of Archbishop William Laud. Yet when he came to Boston in search of greater religious freedom, he found that that civic and religious power was dangerously intermingled, and that local officials were even empowered to punish religious offenses.  So, he set out once again, this time founding a settlement called Providence Plantations and eventually gaining a charter for the new colony of Rhode Island, whose constitution would grant wide latitude for religious practice.

Williams envisioned a “wall of separation between religious and civic powers,” laying the groundwork for this precious gift that we call the separation of church and state. Williams reminds us that when we blur the line between state and religion, we tend to get the worst of both.  Religion and piety will inevitably become compromised by worldly power; and when the emperor becomes a god, all accountability, indeed all true freedom, is lost.

The Iowa caucuses for 2020 are now, sort of, behind us (at least the voting part). We’ve begun a process that will consume our energy for months and shape our country for years to come.  What does that mean for us as people of faith? I believe that separation of church and state is good for the country and for human freedom as well…but it’s also good for the witness of the church. It’s a vital discipline that allows us to speak faithfully and prophetically while honoring that true freedom comes not from the next exciting politician or by joining in the chant of the crowd, but from placing all our hope upon God.  Williams knew what he was doing when he named his capital city Providence.

But “a wall of separation between civic and religious powers” doesn’t mean that we simply compartmentalize the two, or that that we abandon the moral witness that is essential to who we are.  Separating religious and civil power is not the same thing as saying that faith has no voice in public life.

It’s foolish to declare that faith and public life have no relationship with one another; rather, our call is to discern what that relationship is and how that relationship can be redemptive rather than harmful. That means having a right relationship with power: who holds it, who keeps it if we stay silent and what all this means for our coming to maturity in Christ.

Roger Williams gave us the “wall of separation” between civic and religious authorities because he had seen how enmeshing the two brought out the worst in both. Jesus gives us a hope for something more: by being in right relationship with our neighbor, by learning about our power and privilege and by working to create a community where the dignity of all people is honored, we begin to claim the human freedom that is God’s intended gift for us.

a world without hatred

Seventy-five years ago today the prisoners in the concentration camps at Auschwitz were liberated. Since that moment we’ve had to face, and live with, the horrifying reality of what humans can do to one another when in the grip of fear and hatred, poisoned thinking and nationalistic fervor.

A few years ago when I toured Temple Emmanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina, I was shocked to learn that the worldwide Jewish population today (14 million) has yet to reach the level of 16.6 million of 1939.  There are so many lingering tragedies from those awful years, from the failure to honor the promise of “never again” to the rise in hate crimes in America in the past few years.  Perhaps the greatest tragedy, though, is the long-term impact of the final solution: it was not final, but it was truly devastating. Our world is impoverished for the loss of those millions of people, each one beloved of God. Our world is impoverished for how that loss has shaped the world since, even as its aftermath has challenged us to rise up against racism and hatred wherever it surfaces.

Seventy-five years is not much time at all.  We must remain attentive to what happens when truth goes underground, when nationalism becomes seductive, and when hatred and violence become the new normal. We must recommit ourselves to speak the truth even at great cost, to confront evil when we see it, to confess our complicity and arrogance in an unjust world, and to hope for a world without violence.

I am blessed to be surrounded by Jewish friends, colleagues, and neighbors who have, in their graciousness, welcomed me into their lives and invited me to share in the work of community building. In these humble steps lay the tools of rebuilding, and though it has been generations since the tragedy of the Holocaust the work of rebuilding continues.  And so it shall continue when we mark 100, 125 and 150 years, and my children and grandchildren, and the faithful people of my church, continue this work.

May this painful memory call us to confession and reconciliation, but also kindle a hope that we can truly live in a world without hatred violence.

hope beyond war, hope beyond history

News reports and analyses of the first wars I followed in any sense of real-time – the Iraqi war and the wars in the Balkans in the 1990’s – often seemed to wander towards the same open-ended conclusion: there’s so much history here, and it’s complicated. The reports recognized with some measure of fatalism that history runs deep, and that in the end history is hard if not impossible to overcome.

This week our nation’s long running conflict with Iran entered a new phase, with the killing by an American drone of the Iranian general Qassim Suleimani.  The future is uncertain, and the worst-case scenarios are terrifying.   Most of us can do little but wait to see what happens next:  will either country escalate?  Are we headed for wider war, or does this new tension hold the possibility for some new form of dialogue?

As in all wars, hot, cold, potential or actual, there is so much history to consider, and it’s all so very complicated.

As a Christian, though, I am called not only to carefully consider that history, but also to look beyond it to the hope and promise of a world that has made violence and war a thing of the past. Yes, it’s a lot to imagine such a wonderful state of affairs given the reality of life as we know it. But if that’s what God imagines for us, then we can envision it for ourselves as well.

There’s a lot of history to consider” cannot be the end of the conversation if we’re to be faithful to our call to work for peace and reconciliation. The Caesars of this world who would define for us the contours of our relationships with our neighbors – and put our lives on the the line for good measure – cannot put an end to our eternal hope for peace and justice.

Who do we let shape our vision for a world beyond war?  When worldly leaders betray a dangerous lack of imagination we might instead look to prophets such as Isaiah, who remind us what God imagines for us all, far beyond the petty histories and complexities in which we remain stuck:

In the days to come, God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:4

 

 

 

 

 

sin & the span of centuries

This Sunday Trinity will join with Episcopal churches across the country in ringing bells to commemorate the landing of the first enslaved Africans in English North America, 400 years ago this month.  In late August, 1619  “20 and odd” African men, the cargo of a stolen Spanish ship called the White Lion, were brought to Point Comfort, Virginia and most likely traded for food and supplies. This was a beginning, and a wretched one at that: 20 children of God whose arrival forever shaped our country and our identity, giving way to an economy and an enduring culture that could not be separated from its founding sin.

400 years is a long time:  four centuries, generations and generations over which a culture can form and cast deep, lasting roots.

Sometimes it is the very amount of time that matters.  Cultures require time to form, as artifacts and words and ideas are passed between generations, as the residue of defining events and moments, from Port Comfort to Gettysburg to Selma, work their way down into the deepest layers of the soil.

The span of years matters. The farther we go back into our past to trace our origins, the harder it becomes to separate the tangled roots of our establishing sins from the mythologized beginnings that we prefer to claim.   As the roots burrow down and the decades become centuries, the pathology of racism passes from aberration to enmeshment to becoming a core part of the culture itself.  It begins to shape our language, our art, our built environment, our politics. It remains hidden from our view, yet it profoundly shapes our ideas of who we are…and who our neighbors are.

Slavery has not persisted for all those centuries, yet 400 is a mighty denominator that should humble and chasten us lest we begin to think that its legacy is a thing of the past.   For 244 years slavery remained the law of the land, whether British or American:  this land has known far more years of slavery than even the conditional freedom that came with abolition.

The cultural mechanisms that perpetuated slavery for so many centuries endured far longer than the institution itself, for racism is the continuing echo of that enforcement. Through the pitting of poor whites against enslaved blacks, the creation of “whiteness” fertilized our cultural roots with a false sense of race and superiority.   Jim Crow would continue to enforce and nourish the culture for a century after emancipation. Redlining in the early 20th century would redesign our cities to separate and trap wealth on the white side of the tracks.  The current plagues of mass incarceration and housing equity,  which directly impact African American men and women, respectively, must also be seen not as stories unto themselves but against the backdrop of four centuries of a culture shaped by a distorted view of our common humanity.

Words have the power to heal or to wound, to exploit or to reconcile. Ours words matter today precisely because of this long and troubled history. Perhaps because of those 400 years of history, public rhetoric and private talk that taps into our deep cultural reserves of racism and bigotry of must be regarded, whether intentionally or not, as enforcing and perpetuating the part of our heritage that can be traced to a terrible August day in Port Comfort, Virginia.

Churches, my own included, have played their own complicit part in this story. And so we will ring our bells this Sunday, offering a public symbol of presence that will speak of contrition, hope and healing.

400 years is a long time, but the church at its best takes an even longer view than that.   We must look back and consider and remember several dozen souls whose names are lost to history and who were stripped of their dignity in life, but who we trust rest with God now. Perhaps, if we want to be religious about it (and I should think we do), those twenty-odd souls are even interceding for us.

As the church, perhaps we can have the audacity and the humility to look faithfully to what our church and our culture will look like in another 400 years, and hope that a moment of reckoning today can plant the seeds of a culture that will become a closer reflection of who we claim to be.

 

 

bullets and block parties

Since I’m new to town I had yet – until Saturday night – to experience the block parties that are a part of our township’s culture.  I thought we were simply showing up for a slice of pizza and to meet a couple of neighbors. But the block parties, it turns out, are quite the thing around here: the mayor stopped by, candidates for city council were meeting and greeting, and a firetruck even showed up (for fun, not flames). And folks from all over the block, longstanding residents and newcomers like me, all got together simply because around here that is what one does.

And now, suddenly, I feel that much more at home on my street, and a little less like a foreigner from a strange land.  I didn’t walk away with ten new best friends, but perhaps I’d gained something just as valuable: I’d had a chance to simply make conversation with the anonymous dog-walkers, morning commuters and walk-to-schoolers who I’d seen for months but had never met. The evening was beautiful and the roads were blocked off, so I found myself I was sitting in lawn chairs in the middle of the street with former strangers who I could now get to know better.

This being a Saturday night I had to break away early to finish up my preparation for Sunday morning church.  It was then that I learned of the mass shooting in El Paso.  I went to bed saddened, and then, as so many of us did, woke the next morning to find out that another gunman had attacked in Dayton, here in Ohio.

As the day went on and the shock wore off, I thought back to the day before when we sat in the evening sun, in the middle of the street, with neighbors we’d only just met.   I thought of the privilege it was to sit, without fear, in a public space where friends could simply be at ease with one another.

It is precisely those public spaces – spaces where we gather, learn, worship, dance, shop and work that has become the all-too-frequent target of men with very powerful guns. These are spaces where the building blocks of human community are put into play: the simple, informal “small change” interactions that make relationships – and normal life in general – possible.

Mass shootings are degrading this sense of public life, writes Alex Yablon. In as little as a minute, the murderers in El Paso and Dayton

tore new holes in the sense of safety and community that makes public life possible.  Nothing endangers American public space in 2019 as much as mass shootings, says Yale sociologist Vida Bajc, who studies public space and security. In each of the four shootings, fundamental modes of our shared existence—eating, socializing, shopping, partying—gave way to blood, death, panic, and necessitated the response of a militarized police force.

We had none of this on my block, thank God: we simply had a fire truck that the kids and at least one dad (that would be me) could climb on.

Assault rifles are devastating weapons, but the mass shootings themselves are a kind of information warfare, frightening us away from the very spaces where might actually experience some healing around the issues that divide us.

But we need those spaces. We need churches and neighborhood blocks and parks and concerts and schools, where we can safely be together, grow together and even disagree with one another. We need places to sit and take a breath, away from the roller-coaster echo chambers of social and selective media, and simply be with people who live in different houses and live entirely different lives than us. We need to not only feel safe coming to church, but also safe being in church with the very people who, because they see they world differently than we do, are vital in our search for wholeness.

These spaces, spaces where we can sit safely with new neighbors, or worship in places that can transcend the divisions that otherwise define us, are part of what we lose in an epidemic of violence. Violence, of course, can only tear down and destroy. These spaces are worth saving because without them, we cannot grow.

 

 

 

 

ash wednesday: gymnastics edition

Last night after our Ash Wednesday service at the Cathedral I headed homeward with a small container of ashes to give to my daughter. She had to miss the service because her gymnastics practice ran through the evening  but (and oh how this warms the heart of a clergy parent) was sorry to miss getting ashes on her forehead, so she’d ask me to bring some home.

Before I arrived at her gym I took off my clergy collar, so as not to embarrass her too much, and headed in. The ashes were in a plastic bag in my shirt pocket and I planned to wait until we got home because we were carpooling a friend to her house.

As the girls were heading into the waiting room to meet their parents, I overheard one say to her father, “Oh no, I just realized that I never received ashes today.”

It was my moment.

“Excuse me,” I said to the dad I had never met, “but I’m an episcopal priest, and I happen to have ashes with me because my daughter asked me to bring some home. If you like, I can give ashes to your daughter too.”

“I’ll ask her,” he said. Then his daughter came back to me, now with four other girls along with my daughter, and lined up for ashes just as the folks in our downtown cathedral had throughout the day. The words were the same, and even though these young gymnasts had been focusing on their practice only two minutes before, they were suddenly present to the sacrament of the moment as I made signs of the cross on their foreheads.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

And then it was done. We headed to our cars and out into the cold night. My daughter wanted to explain what we did to the friend who carpooled with us, and the friend had polite questions about a practice that was unfamiliar to her. I drove home with my heart warmed.

The beauty of ritual can bind us together and teach us things that words cannot. We didn’t talk about the churches that we all came from or the meaning of the ashes: the point was that for these young people, the ritual spoke a common language that allowed for connection and holiness that was as rich in the waiting room of a practice gym as it was under the ornate arches of the Gothic cathedral. The ashes were a moment to touch the deeper story – and it was just that, a short moment – and then return to life.

When ritual and holiness are integrated into our lives, sometimes that short moment is all we need.

 

 

 

the right people

How do we find the right people to rebuild a church? Or even build on something that’s plugging along fine? Do they need to be of a certain generation? Have a certain income or skill set? Do you prefer lifelong members of your church or new blood?

I’ve found that they need to be none of the above, and all of the above. Looking back at the patterns of people who’ve nudged a church towards renewal I notice a core pattern, but beyond that it can be just about anyone. Longtime members can be a force for rebuilding, yet so can folks who are brand new.  All kinds of skill sets are needed, and most people have something to contribute.

If you’re looking to do a bit of church rebuilding, seek people who:

  1. Love the church, deeply but not uncritically.
  2. Love one another, however imperfectly.
  3. Will put in the work, over a long period of time.
  4. Are willing to try new things every once in a while.

There’s layers of nuance and tension in all that but I think it’s a good start.  We never know what God has in mind so there’s no such thing as foolproof. Even in the best of circumstances it takes years to unfold so it takes commitment and patience. Faithfulness, time, and a capacity for change can be fertile soil for something that might surprise us.

the most anxious person in the room

Sometimes we let most anxious person in the room decide the agenda and the tone. When we do, the work that we need to be doing do often goes undone.

This week’s experience with Florence reminded me of the hurricane that accompanied my early days at my first church gig. A gulf-coast storm had disrupted gas supplies for the entire Southeast, and though it was just an inconvenience North Carolina had become seized with anxiety about the possibility that we’d all run out of gas and have to leave our minivans stranded by the side of the road.

Thus the stage was set for my first-ever-church-committee-meeting. We’d worked for just a few minutes when someone barrelled in late, blurting “everybody’s out of gas! The stations are dry!”  In a polite panic everyone speed-walked to their cars to commence the hunt for fuel. Meeting adjourned.

Every storm and every disruption is different, but in this case there was little need to worry. News reports told us this was coming and would probably last a few days, and with some foresight there was no reason to panic. But panic we did, and now we’d lost an important meeting with mere weeks to go before a fall program was to begin. It made a fairly straightforward committee job a lot harder.

It was a lesson to me, right there in my the very first of many hundreds of committee meetings:  if there’s anxiety in the room, it will want the floor. And without effort to diffuse or redirect it, that anxiety will likely derail the actual work that needs to be done.

It’s helpful, when it surfaces, to see anxiety for what it is.   That doesn’t mean we get to dismiss it or ignore something we don’t want to hear as “anxiety.”  Sometimes the most anxious person in the room is telling us exactly what we need to hear. And there are times that each of us becomes the most anxious person in the room…we all take our turns. But seeing anxiety as something pulls our focus away from the work at hand, and puts us instead on shakier ground, is a first step in unwinding it.

The deeper lesson over the years, though, is that anxiety isn’t a given. It took me a little while to realize that, especially after that first capsized committee meeting: the great  majority of groups and team meetings I’ve been in over the years have actually been pretty productive, and folk usually show up to get it done and go home.  Anxiety will always be there, of course, gets better over time, if we can learn to be attentive to headaches before they become crises, if we can stay focused and practice some discernment along the way.