Ok, white people. It’s getting a little embarrassing out here. A string of recent events have caused some of us to scratch our heads and wonder at the audacity of your racism. You do know that when non-white people do stuff you don’t like them doing (like sitting, napping or having a cookout) that your dislike and racism does not criminalize their behavior, yeah? You know that, right? Because when you don’t, that same racism calls the police for no reason and even might put on a uniform and a badge and start assaulting grandmas and learning your life lessons the hard way… and that’s when we have to have a chat. Come on. Going after a grandma?
Wait, it’s not just adults and senior citizens… some white people will shoot at a black teen for asking for directions! We cannot look away. This is a stunning white sin on display, shameless and feeling very entitled. I wonder how many of our gallery of racist rogues linked above were at church, today? How many of them will claim Christ and a Christian life? I know I linked all the above stories, but let’s stop for a moment and say their names: Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, Lolade Siyonbola, Kenzie Smith and Ms. Campbell.
I totally understand the feeling that many white people get when these videos start popping up on Facebook and our news channel of choice, “Hey! That’s not me! I’m not like that! I’m not racist!” I mean, I’m not one of those rifle-toting Swastika-wearing (very fine people) nutters like those we see on TV and the internet! Well, good. But these episodes remind us that in all times and all places people of conscience who have a voice must speak. We all need to speak out in every social platform available to us: white supremacy and racism are wrong. Some may have the uncomfortable job of telling coworkers, friends and family to stop their racists language and behavior around us: don’t back down. Every time we remain silent we further enable racism and violence against our non-white neighbors, friends and family. This is an all-hands-on-deck, white people!
“The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, 11 January 1907 – 23 December 1972
The white sin of racism passed from generation to generation will not stop until white people stop it. We can’t legislate it away. We have to change white culture, white society and white people. No more excuses. Not being racist is not enough. We need a war on racism. We need a war on racism because non-white folks need to sit down sometimes, might become fatigued while studying and need a quick nap, and will surely enjoy cooking out on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
“Each of you is now a new person. You are becoming more and more like your Creator, and you will understand him better. It doesn’t matter if you are a Greek or a Jew, or if you are circumcised or not. You may even be a barbarian or a Scythian, and you may be a slave or a free person. Yet Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us… each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful.”
Colossians 3:10-11 & 15, St. Paul
All of us, white people of faith especially, must be loud and clear in our condemnation and opposition to racism and white supremacy. There is no other way for us to be but loudly, clearly and completely opposed to this historic and tragic sin. Our weapons are love, grace and truth. Say it peacefully and say it civilly. But for the sake of all our beloved non-white friends, family and neighbors: say it!
Faith and our journeys of faith are interesting pursuits. As I begin to process my recent pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine I find myself exploring the ways that we often deal with faith and fact, certainty and hope. It seems to me that many folks spend a lot of time seeking fact, support for our faith ideas, certainty of what we have hoped. On the other hand some of us seem averse to fact, almost afraid of certainty, as though proof or even just pieces of proof might undermine faith itself. One thing the pilgrimage has taught me is a deeper understanding that faith and certainty are not opposed, forcing a choice of one or the other, but exist in balance, complimenting one another as we seek a nearer walk with God.
I was excited to visit some of the first locations of our pilgrimage, scattered along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, which factored in the public ministry of Jesus. We stood on the Mount of Beatitudes where tradition has Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount. We celebrated the Eucharist at Tabgah, the location where tradition says that Jesus broke the bread and shared the fish to feed more than 5,000 people in the crowds who followed him.
Then we came to the first of the stones on our pilgrimage, these black basalt stones which formed the base of the Jewish Synagogue in the ruins of Capernaum, a small city from the time of Christ. But this was not just any small city! Jesus based some of his public ministry from this city, and it was the hometown of one of his closest followers, Simon Peter. Here we pilgrims can touch the foundation stones of that synagogue where Jesus attended, see the streets and building foundations where he walked and shared life with friends. None of this proves that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the resurrected incarnate God, or any of the things in which I place my faith, but we were in the geography of the man! We came as close as possible to sharing space with Jesus, sharing those stones and touching a tangible moment with him.
It’s affecting to come from a completely spiritual experience of Christ and to move into a geographical awareness of him. The abstract becomes more concrete. Faith has a rootedness and an anchor in a place and time in a very new way for a pilgrim. Nothing proven, but certainly something gained.
Toward the end of our pilgrimage we again encountered some stones, the stairs leading to and from the home of the High Priest and the location of one of the trials to which Jesus submitted himself. We stood upon the stairs which Jesus would have walked. Yes, we walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City, and I’ll write about that later, but these stairs, these stones! Instead of tracing a path, some meters above the stones on which Jesus walked, here we shared the very stones! Did Jesus walk these stairs? There’s no real certainty he did, but these are stones of his day, the very stones on which he would have walked to go and to and from the house of the High Priest. This is a tangible connection to Jesus the likes of which I have never before known, and it affected me more than I would have expected. A passage came to mind as I sat with these stones along the stairs… Luke 19:37-40 (CEV), “When Jesus started down the Mount of Olives, his large crowd of disciples were happy and praised God because of all the miracles they had seen. They shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory to God.” Some Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, make your disciples stop shouting!” But Jesus answered, “If they keep quiet, these stones will start shouting.”
To be a pilgrim is to become one of those followers along the roads of Jerusalem, even to be one of the stones waiting to cry out if needed. We now share the witness, the song, the joy. Our faith picks up some concrete reality along these dusty hot paths. Nothing is proven, but there is a new kind of sharing with Christ. And with sharing comes gratefulness. I am so grateful to everyone who made this trip possible and the 42 pilgrims who journeyed alongside me. I thank Christ for walking our paths and sharing such beauty with us.
I’ve had several things on mind for my first follow up post to “Why am I still a Christian?” Those several things were completely derailed by the school shooting in Florida. We must do more than pray, but that doesn’t mean we don’t pray. We must believe in more than the new status quo of gun violence, and that means we all need some time searching our souls, engaging in conversations and building stronger bridges between diverse communities in our society. Can our faith add meaning to this dialogue?
Let’s talk about some meaning in life. Growing up in church I remember the Beatitudes as regular Sunday School material, but somewhere along the way to adulthood we seemed to leave that section behind. Other than good material for kids to memorize, I can’t honestly say I recall our giving too much energy to this passage of Jesus stating some of his core values and beliefs about the world. His beliefs about what the world should be.
Blessed. Blessed are… In this short passage Jesus begins a sermon full of pretty radical content with a framework for what constitutes blessing, or what should constitute blessing. Jesus mentions eight things, eight conditions or states of life, which we should view as conditions of blessing. We know what blessing means, even if we don’t use the word except when someone sneezes. Blessing means gifted, having a reason to celebrate, happy, and it is well-wishing, empowering, a desire for someone’s good or betterment. So here they are, the states of life which constitute blessing, from Matthew’s Gospel: 1) the poor in spirit, 2) those in grief, 3) the humble, 4) all seeking justice and rightness, 5) those who show mercy, 6) those who work to keep their intentions pure, 7) all who work for peace, and 8) those who suffer for doing right in the world. There’s a ninth one at the end that usually stands alone in scholarship as it feels far more focused on the audience with Jesus that day than a broader universal blessing. We’ll stick with the generally accepted list of eight.
Can we hear these as value statements? Is this Jesus expressing a worldview? He seems to be reversing the way we think about getting ahead in life, what we want from life and how we share this life together. Too often we trade mercy and justice, peace and rightness for dominance, winning and revenge. Too often we avoid the hurting, close our ears to the grieving and make a wide detour around folks who need us most. These statements of blessing first and foremost call us to lift our eyes from our own small worlds and see more than just our own interests and pursuits. We must look to the people around us in mercy and with humility. We don’t turn away from people in grief or our hurting neighbors. We seek peace, for all people. We desire justice in the world, and we work to make that desire a reality.
Jesus has a clear message and meaning for our lives. His value statements in Matthew’s Gospel show us a picture of people trying to work with God to make a world that’s more livable, more fair and deeply healing. How would my daily decisions and life choices be different if guided by these values? And when I find myself grieving and in need of mercy, what a state of blessing I might be in if I’m surrounded by people who are following this vision of the world? The world will still have grief tomorrow, and human lives will need mercy, humility and justice. What Jesus offers us is a pattern of mind and belief which enables us, invites us, to co-create a world with God that heals and unifies. I want the world that Christ visions for us, wants for us and calls us to help realize.
“In great and small matters cause no harm,
and do not become an enemy instead of a friend.”
Yeshus Ben Sira, Ecclesiasticus 5:15-6:1
“For we are what he has made us,
created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
Paul, Ephesians 2:10
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus, Matthew 5:43-48
I’d like to start with a confession, and then an admission. First, I’d like to confess that 2017 was a tough year for me, and I often vacillated between feeling neglected by God and neglectful of God. I was riding the struggle bus, front row. In a tough year like that it’s hard to pray, and I didn’t pray like I wish I had. In a tough year like that it’s easy to let one’s emotional desolation color all things, even the blessings, in a shadowed undervalued light. My admission is that I am still devoted to my Christ, to the call that God placed upon me so many years ago to be a servant of the world and the church. I’m ready to get off that struggle bus and begin again to serve and share life in a close-knit community of faith. But as I started this new year a question occurred to me and continued to feel very relevant for this time in my life: Why am I still a Christian?
It’s not a bad question. I’ve been a follower of Jesus Christ, by conscious choice, since my baptism when I was fifteen years old. That’s almost 33 years… my 48th birthday is next month. For the vast majority of my adult life I have been employed by churches in different positions of ministry and service. I’ve studied Christianity and other religions, and I have had many deep and wonderful relationships in and outside of the church. I have left the church tradition of my youth, pastored outside of all the established denominations, and eventually landed a few years ago in the Episcopal Church. For the last three years I’ve worked for Apple (full-time for the last two years) as a retail store technician, salesperson, trainer and most recently in store leadership. Two years out of ministry and after a rough year in 2017, I’ve been feeling very unemployable in ministry. At this moment I don’t have any firm path or prospect back into the religious vocational calling of my life.
Maybe we should start with a couple of reasons I don’t accept for why I’m still a Christian, after all these years and after so many recent disappointments. Reasons which are not accurate for why I’m still a Christian: 1) “I’m paid to be a Christian.” Nope. No one has paid me to be a professional religious person for over two years. I don’t think that was ever a reason why I was a Christian, but it’s worth mentioning that my paycheck does not depend on my faith. 2) “I have to be a Christian because all other religions are so wrong.” Nope. I’ve been leaning over the years toward something that many would call a form of universalism, though I would not say I’m a universalist. I’m not a Christian because I think that Jesus wins the grand cosmic religious competition, because I don’t think religions are intrinsically in competition.
Why still be a Christian? I’m going to be breaking this into several blogs for while, sort of a Lenten expedition for myself. Yes, next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day! In short I have been looking at a few ideas, answers to my question: journey, experience, meaning and witness. We won’t necessarily take them in that order or hesitate to add to the list. On April 8th I’ve been invited back to the pulpit at St. John’s Norwood to preach, and the Gospel passage that day is from John 20 when the Apostle Thomas touches the wounds of his resurrected Lord. He previously rejected the witness of the women and men who had seen Jesus and demanded his own evidence. In our passage Jesus graciously allows Thomas to feel his wounds and then gives a blessing for all who accept the witness in faith without demanding a touch of their own. Today, we have the question of what to do with this amazing witness. The graphic I chose to include with this blog post is an example of meaning, the meaning that faith can give to words and decisions, to life.
Why I’m still a Christian is also a great question in view of my coming pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine in April, just 65 days away! I will be walking where Jesus walked, and seeing places and landscapes central to the lives of those early witnesses who still speak to us, today. I’m going to blog my exploration of this question to help myself hear my own thoughts, to gain clarity and hopefully to hear from you as well. May God bless your 2018, and may all our efforts to be faithful and authentic be pleasing to God and enriching for us and the world around us.
I had a message pop up in Facebook the other day, my friend Kurt from St John’s had been poking around my blog and reading some of the things I have written on LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance. He correctly pointed out that I was a little out of date… he didn’t say “dude, you’re slacking off,” but he should have. He would have been right.
He also graciously offered me permission to share a short article he wrote this past year for St John’s on what it meant to be asked to help our parish organize a group to march in the annual Pride Parade in DC. He did a great job organizing, by the way… it was my first Pride Parade and I’m hooked.
Here’s the text of his article, and a few Parade photos… please receive it as a gift from Kurt, a brother in Christ, a humble man and a deeply good soul.
Pride Parade Story by Kurt Ellison
It wasn’t long ago that someone stopped me and said, “So what’s the deal with the Pride Parade? Why is St. John’s marching?”
That is no small answer!
As a teenager that grew up at St. John’s, I could tell that we were definitely a church that was not of one mind about the whole gay issue. We had gay clergy, but when it came to choosing a new rector in 1997, St. John’s said overwhelmingly (in its profile survey) that it did not want a gay rector. (Yes, it’s true!)
As St. John’s wrestled with where it was and searched for a new rector, so I was wrestling with who I was – a gay kid who loved my church (and I still do). Living in Chicago as an adult, I found myself at the annual pride parade, and fascinated by the churches that were marching in the parade, and thinking, “Wow, my home church (St. John’s) would never do this!”
Years later, I moved back to the area to look after my ailing parents, I eventually came back to St. John’s and was curious to see how things had changed. Imagine my surprise when Susan Pizza and Sari Ateek eventually asked if I would write a grant for the Norwood Parish Fund to get us to participate in Pride.
I had to think for a while, and pray seriously about it. I was the type of person to watch a parade, not necessarily march in one, much less write a grant proposal, or organize a contingent. In my prayers, I could picture God having a good laugh saying, “HA HA, Kurt! You thought St. John’s would never do this! Now you have to man up!” How could I say no?
I wrote the proposal to the NPF. It got approved (kudos to the NPF folks!). We bought frisbees with the church logo, a banner, and advertised in Crossroads. 25 people showed up to march. We had a blast!
The gay community does not always receive a welcoming message from churches (understatement!). Other churches, while supportive and inclusive are not necessarily putting their message of welcome out there. Marching in the parade tells a whole community that they are welcome at St. John’s. It is a positive risk for the Gospel.
What amazes me still after three years of marching is how grateful people are to see the churches marching in the Pride Parade. All along the parade route we hear time and again, “Thank you for coming!”, and “Thank you, St. John’s!” In 2015 it is no small thing to say, “ALL ARE WELCOME HERE!”
Our pastor, Rev. Sari!
…and the man of the hour, Kurt!
Below is one I took at the Parade in 2016!
Life is a journey and our spiritual life mirrors this with twists and turns and fun developments… a recent fun event in my journey was being confirmed in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion on Saturday, November 14th, 2015 at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. In the picture with me is Reverend Sari and my new friend Anne, both from St. John’s Norwood Parish.
It was also an intentional move, not an accident. I’ve been looking for a Christian faith tradition for the second half of my life, even making a short-list of fellowships to explore and question, and we ended up choosing the Episcopal Church for many reasons. I’ll describe three of those reasons here, things that the Episcopal Church stands for and some deep blessings of being around this tradition.
The Middle Way. In my life as a Christian and a Pastor I have often found myself holding the center among a variety of people and viewpoints. I have pastored a community for many years that included conservatives and progressives, Republicans and Democrats, many ethnicities, differing sexualities, beautiful colors, varied traditions and diverse backgrounds. I was intentional about trying to make all welcome and keeping them respected and I called it a sacred tension of doing life together in our diversity. I’ve found the Anglican Communion to have already named this: the middle way. With a foot in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions, and a diverse family of people, the middle way is that path of unity and shared dignity without a forced conformity or loss of vital historicity.
Tribal Without Tribalism. Our family has been blessed to find a balance of openness and identity in the Episcopal Church that I describe as being tribal without the tribalism. We have an identity as a group, a faith family, without needing to judge or exclude others. We have a belonging system, which is important, without needing to also draw bold lines of division and keep others from our Table or our full welcome in worship. As a guest dropping in often over the last decade I was able to find solace in the Rites and share the Eucharist with this communion of faith long before my confirmation. I am so thankful for that gift through the years.
Living As A Communion. I’ve been a prayer book collector for many years, and the Book of Common Prayer has been one of my favorites. I didn’t know that it’s existence represents one of the central ideas of the Anglican Communion, that instead of being in joined in fellowship because we all think and believe exactly alike, we are one because we pray together. This resonates with me as both a foundation of unity and peace in our life as a communion and in my daily devotional practice. We are one in our mutual reaching out to God.
I’m not here asserting that the Episcopal Church is the best faith family for everyone, and I have no interest in any my church is better than your church competition. I just want to share what a blessing it has been to find my tribe and be welcomed therein. It’s been an interesting journey for our whole family and we are excited about the coming years with the church. And yes, the cool Episcopal shield is probably going to be my next tattoo, but we’ll see. =)