Sunday, July 5, 2020

A Declaration of Obligation

Independence Day commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence and its assertion of human rights:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men. 

Our history in the centuries since has been a long discussion of those human rights: how far do they extend?

Women, immigrants, slaves, indigenous peoples: do THEY have those same inalienable rights?

Do those rights extend to unborn children?

Do we all have the right to carry guns in the public square? To say what we like, when and how we wish? Do I have the right to endanger your health? Do you have the right to threaten my safety?

The Declaration of Independence states that the source of our rights is our Creator, who endows them on “all men.” Yet I see very little in scripture about rights and what I do see instructs us to hold those rights lightly.

The most extended discussion of rights I can find is in 1 Corinthians, where Paul consistently encourages and models a willingness to set rights aside on behalf of others:
  • 1 Corinthians 9:12: If others have this right of support from you, shouldn't we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.
  • I Corinthians 6:12-20 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price.
  • I Corinthians 7:9-13 Be careful . . . that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. If what I eat causes my brother or sister to faall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
  • 1 Corinthians 9:4-18  Don’t we have the right to food and drink?  Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? . . . But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. 

My friend Rabbi Michael Pollack first introduced me to the idea of obligation rather than rights. I invited him to speak on this at a Fair Districts. PA conference last year. You can hear that here. He suggests that while rights separate and put the focus on “ME”, an understanding of obligation can draw us back together: 
  • You don’t have a right to life in the Bible. You have an obligation to not kill.
  • You don’t have a right to shelter in the Bible. You have an obligation to house the homeless.
  • You don’t have an obligation to be accepted in as a refugee. You have an obligation to take in the stranger. 

The current controversy surrounding face masks has become, for me, an immediate example of rights and obligation. Many of us are doing all we can to learn about the spread of coronavirus, to sort through the latest research and follow the most current advice to help keep ourselves and others safe. Many are depending on directives from leaders, and quickly complying with whatever they’re asked to do. Some are scornful of every caution, insisting on the right to assemble in large numbers without the use of masks, or accusing leaders of tyranny when precautions are put in place.
If we think of it in terms of rights: sure. We have the right to go where we like without a mask.

But if a mask protects those around us, don't we have an obligation to wear one?

If not wearing a mask adds to the anxiety of others in an already anxious time, why not make that sacrifice, even if we’re not completely sure a mask is helpful?

A friend’s church has decided to gather for services, socially distanced and wearing masks. But some members of the congregation insist they don’t need masks and can sit as close to each other as they like. The church has accommodated this, creating a section for those who won’t wear masks.

As a result, there are other congregants who simply won’t attend.

Some may never attend that church again.

I can imagine Apostle Paul: Don't we have a right to refuse to wear masks, to sit where we  like? But we do not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ

In political discourse shaped by assertion of rights, the trajectory seems to be ever increasing division, as you assert your rights in opposition to mine and every faction fights for expanded rights that diminish and dismantle the rights of others.

What if we start instead from a place of obligation? 

What if we start from love of neighbor, the obligation to see that all are safe, cared for, welcome, heard?

The prophet Micah says:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.And what does the Lord require of you?To act justly and to love mercyand to walk humbly with your God.  

There is obligation there: obligation to neighbor, to God, to a deeper understanding of our role for good in creation and community.

As I celebrate this Independence Day Weekend, I pray we set aside our rights and independence and focus instead on obligation and community.

May that shape our politics, our priorities, our prayers.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Not Ours to Save

I’ve been thinking about a book I read and wrote about several years ago: The World is Not Ours to Save, by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, an advocate for the global abolition of nuclear weapons. A description of the book by publisher Intervarsity Press says

Wigg-Stevenson's own pilgrimage from causes to calling shows how to ground an enduring, kingdom-oriented activism in the stillness of vocation rather than in the anxiety of the world's brokenness.

What an interesting proposition.

These days the grief of the world hangs heavy.

There’s the growing catalog of losses, sad versions of the same refrain: he tested positive and two days later he was gone.

There’s the long catalog of disappointments: graduations, weddings, parties enacted in small settings while loved ones watch on Zoom.

Jobs gone. Neighborhood businesses gone. Simple pleasures set aside until some distant undetermined date.

And the constant background of partisan spin, turning simple precautions into cosmic battles.

No wonder our hearts are heavy.

Our anxiety – MY anxiety - is rooted in the sense that the world is broken beyond repair, and there’s nothing I can do.

But none of this is out of God’s reach. None of it beyond his intervention.

At the start of Advent 2014 I wrote:

The older I get, the more I invest in people and communities around me, the more clearly I see the depths of our dilemma and the more certain I am that the world is not mine to save.
I am not able to solve or even shake the entrenched racism and oblivious injustice that will put one in three African American men in prison, that continues to question the outrage of one more, and one more, and one more unarmed young man shot dead by those sworn to keep the peace.

My uneven boycott of slave-harvested chocolate, my uneven support of Fair Trade coffee, will never make a dent in immoral labor practices.

I'm not able to ensure safe food, water, air, for my own family, let alone this suffering, sorrowing world.

I can't heal the sick, restore broken families, fix broken systems.

As Wigg-Stevenson observes, in a moving chapter about a trip to Hiroshima to honor those who died there in 1944, 

The sin of the world is not some minor laceration. . . It is a vast and ragged puncture wound driven deep into the lungs and heart of creation itself. The divide stretches between us and God, and between every person and every other person. Even if we cared enough or were good enough to work in perfect concert to try to fix it (though we don’t and aren’t, and thus we won’t) we lack the capacity. The wound of sin is the very ground on which we live, eking out our unpredictable lives along its edge. (61) 

Looking back, I wonder what it was that so alarmed me in those quiet, peaceful days of 2014.

Now, in this strange pandemic season, it feels like the sin of the world is more visible than ever. The vast, ragged wounds of racism, partisan fury, economic injustice, idolatrous pride overwhelm me. It’s exhausting work to get through the day without falling into a quagmire of sadness or fury.
Earth from Expedition 44 June 19 2016,
Creative Commons License, NASA.

I wrote then: 
Is healing possible?


Give up.

Forget it.

Yet, we’re told not to give up. We’re commanded to hope.

And not just to hope for a time in the future, but to speak, act, live as agents of that future wholeness alive in this fractured present.

That action starts in stillness, not anxiety. Sometimes the best work we can do it to ground ourselves in awareness that the world is not ours to save. We are not the ones writing this story. We are not the ones determining the outcome.

Yet we have a role to play. We are called to kingdom-oriented activism, activism grounded in love, experience of God's unfailing love that gives us confidence to hope.

I’ll be praying and writing more about this in the weeks ahead, but for now, I wait where I waited on that Advent Sunday six years ago:

There are days I start out with no vision of what the next step will be, and then words are given.

There are times when I stand in the middle of dry bones and watch in wonder as they spring to life.

There are moments when the rushing-breath-of-wind breathes through the valleys where I live, and I marvel, and go my way rejoicing.

There are seasons when I simply wait in hope. This is one of those seasons. 

No king is saved by the size of his army;
    no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
    despite all its great strength it cannot save.
But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him,
    on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
to deliver them from death
    and keep them alive in famine.
We wait in hope for the Lord;
    he is our help and our shield.
In him our hearts rejoice,
    for we trust in his holy name.
May your unfailing love be with us, Lord,
    even as we put our hope in you.  (Psalm 33:16-22)

Earth from Expedition 44, June 19 2016, Creative Commons license NASA

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Birdwatching with my Father

White-Throated Sparrow photographed by birding friend
Alan C Warren, Exton Park, 2020
Happy Father’s Day.

For years those words were far from welcome. My father vanished before I turned two. I saw him exactly once after that. He showed up for a visit when I was seventeen, then disappeared again.

From two to thirteen I lived in my grandfather’s house, but he wasn’t much of a father figure. He kept his own rooms locked: the master bedroom, a first floor study, a workroom in the basement. He walked around the house with keys rattling, shouting invectives or listening to baseball on his transistor radio. He had abused and alienated his own four sons and rarely spoke, except in bellowing abuse, to his estranged wife, my grandmother, who slept in a small sewing room at the other end of the house. The only meal he ate with us was Sunday dinner, which he monopolized with old jokes and pointless stories.   

When I was thirteen my grandfather decided he was done living in a house full of kids, so he sold the house and moved into an apartment by himself. I never saw him again. After that we had several years of disruption: living with people we didn't know, moving to new schools, always on the edge of homelessness. In four years, I lived in six different places, several times with families I had never met before.

Happy Father’s Day? I hated it. Everything about it.

When I was in third grade I earned a Bible by memorizing the books of the Old and New Testament - a little white Bible. I was a strange kid, more comfortable reading than talking, and I wandered through that little Bible, collecting things that I wanted to keep, writing verses on scraps of paper and memorizing them while I brushed my teeth at night:
Psalm 27: 10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.
Psalm 68:5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of the widows, is God in his holy dwelling.  
My grandmother’s heart-attack, at the end of my junior year of high school, created further disruption and drew me into a deeper experience of prayer. I found myself convinced that “father to the fatherless” was more than an abstract idea and that when Jesus told us to call his father “Abba,” he meant what he said: we were to consider God our daddy, the close, warm, loving father every fatherless child has watched and longed for from a distance.

That year I began a dialogue with God – more complaint than what I would have called prayer, almost passive aggressive in tone: If you’re REALLY my father, you’ll help me avoid ridiculous mistakes. If you’re REALLY my father, you’ll help me know what to do. If you’re REALLY my father, you’ll provide the money I need for college.

I can point back to very specific interventions in those late teen years as I careened in disastrous directions. I could tell of clear words of knowledge at moments of decision.  And I could explain how I went through college with no savings, no family support, and finished with enough money in the bank to cover my first year of grad school.

For decades now, I’ve been totally convinced of God’s provision and protection.

But even as a child, I saw a side to having a dad that goes way beyond provision and protection. I was jealous of kids who did things with their dads, who played games, made music, shared hobbies with their fathers.

I’ve been accused of anthropomorphizing God. I don’t think I do.

But I do believe in a personal, present, intervening God.

And I sometimes sense a closeness that’s hard to put in words.

So: birdwatching with my father.

I’ve been an active birdwatcher for ten years or so, learning bird calls, leading bird walks, planting native plants in my yard to attract a wider variety of birds. This summer I have nesting wrens, sparrows, flickers, grackles, bluebirds, chickadees, robins, woodpeckers.

In a whimsical thought, it occurred to me that God is a birdwatcher too. I can imagine the designer’s mind behind the lovely coloring in a flicker’s wings, or the soft shades of a bluebird’s egg.

Sparrows are hard to identify, but Jesus said “are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.”

When I lead bird walks, there’s a point in the walk where I remind the group of what normally expected birds we haven’t yet seen, alerting them to be watching. And I often suggest a few less-expected birds it would be fun to see.
Horned Larks photographed by birding friend 
Alan C Warren, Exton Park, 2020

Sometimes those birds show up in memorable ways: the kettle of broadband hawks the one day I said “we need some broadband hawks.” The delightful flock of horned larks the windy day I led the group across a frozen field.

I began to wonder, what if God wants to share his much-loved birds with us, as a father wants to share his favorite hobby?

One day I had been working on my computer for far too long without a break, and had a thought: I need to go outside. I jumped up, walked outside, looked at the sky, and there was a bald eagle, soaring low across the backyards beyond my own. It swooped and soared for several minutes then flew off. I had never seen an eagle so visible from my yard before and haven’t seen one since.

Another day I was in a frustrating fog: wrestling with plans that seemed to go nowhere, spinning my wheels in too many directions without getting much done.
I had that sense again: go outside. Quick.

I walked out to the woodsy area in the back of my yard and just stood still.

And heard the tiny voices of kinglets, all around me: Ruby-crowned kinglets. Golden-crowned kinglets. Swooping and circling and peering at me from branches near my head. More kinglets than I’ve seen in my yard at one time, before or since. I stood a while and enjoyed them, then went back to work. The next time I checked they were no longer there – just a fleeting visit, a fanciful gift.

Who am I, that God would invite me to watch his birds with him?

Who is God, to spare a thought for something so whimsical when the world is in chaos and grief?

It’s worth going back to that passage in Luke 12, where Jesus talked about sparrows.

He also talked about ravens:
They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 

The passage invites the religious leaders, the crowd, the disciples, into a different kind of relationship: a close relationship of trust, of listening, of obedience. 
Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. 
Song Sparrow photographed by
birding friend Leslie Peed, Exton Park, 2015
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 
What would it take to draw us deeper into that kind of faith, obedience, and freedom from fear?

For each of us, the answer will be different.

For me, right now, birdwatching with my Father is one more way of learning to trust, learning to listen, leaning into joy.

Happy Father’s Day!

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Be the Bridge

A recent conversation on our online neighborhood network set me thinking. Someone posted “I wanted to reach out to anyone who is personally going through a rough time right now due to the events that have happened within the last week. I am here if anyone needs to talk.”

That offer struck me: in this unusual time, there are MANY with no one to talk to. How can I lean into that reality? How can my church, ALL our churches, offer space for friendship and conversation?

Several people responded with heartfelt personal stories: a man who had had painful encounters with police officers. A woman concerned about the safety of her husband, a large, strong Black man living in a predominantly white community. Reflections on miscommunication, misunderstanding.

Then: “I
would be interested in joining a group to discuss these issues,” followed by discussion about an online group, or an in-person group once COVID-19 restrictions end.

A day later I was invited to be part of a Zoom call with someone I’ve met through my work, an activist organizer with extensive friendships in the returned-citizen, formerly-incarcerated community. She has a vision of an online discussion where people can share their stories and come to know each other as people caught in a broken system. I’m not sure how that will take shape, but interested to be part of it.

Praying about all this, I stumbled over a friend’s recommendation of Be The Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation.

In December, 2019 Be the Bridge tied for first place in the Christian Living category of the Christianity Today 2020 Book Awards.  The book was written by Latasha Morrison, founder and president of an organization she launched in 2016 “to encourage racial reconciliation among all ethnicities, to promote racial unity in America, and to equip others to do the same.” Her book shares some stories from that work, but also stories from our country’s history, stories not told in our textbooks or classrooms.

I immediately ordered four copies. I was going to order one, then found it on ThinkOrange for $11 a copy, and began to wonder who might read it with me. If you’re interested, let me know!

While waiting for it to arrive, I’ve been wandering the Be the Bridge website, praying.

I love this vision of reconciliation:
We turn up the voices of the marginalized and require that those in the dominant culture listen, educate themselves on history, grow their empathy muscles and develop language to understand marginalization and oppression.
In these conversations that we’re having at Be the Bridge, there’s not going to be an even exchange of information, where, “Hey, I’m going to tell what I know, and you tell me what you know.” The fact is, history has been erased, hijacked, white-washed, and skewed. We have to set that right with truth-telling. That’s where we start. A lot of people coming to this bridge are coming with a lot of misinformation related to history because we don’t have the same common memory or shared understanding of history. 
No one is voiceless unless there’s a medical condition. The reality is, people are unheard. We spotlight the stories, the concerns and the injustices of marginalized people groups so that together we can Be the Bridge toward racial reconciliation.
I love the unapologetic clarity, claiming space for voices too often unheard. I started this blog, Words Half Heard, with the strong belief that there are too many words I’ve never fully understood, in part due to the cultural and political hijacking of the white Christian church, in part due to theological constructs that elevate some voices over the voices closest to God’s heart: the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the stranger. I’ve sat through far too many exercises in “even exchange of information” where the predominant voices continue to dominate, where the one-sided “this is the way it is” story is told, yet again.

I so much want to hear the stories not yet heard, to understand grace, justice, beauty, wholeness from voices that contradict and challenge the defining narratives.

Mostly, I want to listen.

I want to think about hair, skin, bodies: how hard it is to love ourselves when we don’t look like the prevailing standards, when our hair has a mind of its own.

I want to hear about voices, dialects, accents, words: how we can learn to hear truth from voices different from those we’ve been taught are right or respectable or reasonable.

I want to listen to stories: the heartbreaking stories that are hard to tell, the terrible stories that will make me rage, and grieve, and pray, and think, and plan.

The Be the Bridge website has a few of those stories, told simply and clearly by those who have lived them. It offers a wealth of recommended resources, including a “Where Do I Start?” blogpost with lists of books and films and podcasts.

The website also offers a link to a private Facebook group with strict rules on what’s allowed, including a requirement that those new to the group spend three months listening and learning before being allowed to comment or post.

What would our churches be like if we were all required to spend three months really LISTENING to the people least like us? If we spent three months praying to hear the questions behind the questions, struggling to understand the grief and love and longing behind the half-heard words?

I’ve been feeling that in this strange, difficult time, God is inviting us all to something new. I’m not quite sure what that entails, but feeling sure there’s more work to do to get ready. For me, joining the Be the Bridge community as a listener and learner is an essential next step. 

I invite you to join me.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Beautiful lives

Imagine a body that refuses use of its own arm or leg.

A body that hides or harms its own ears or eyes or tongue.

I have often pictured the body of Christ, refusing the gifts of women: limping with one leg, trying to serve with just one arm.

But these past few weeks, grieving the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, so many many others, I find myself grieving the body of Christ, fractured, unfeeling, fingers gone, hard of hearing, almost blind.

But that assumes – wrongly – that the white church is the body, the white American evangelical church. In reality, the white American church is a tiny fraction, a small bruised part of a larger, stronger, healthier whole.

I’ve been blessed to see the beauty beyond the bruise. In my grieving this week, I’ve also been giving thanks, for so many beautiful lives that have challenged my understanding of love, wholeness, wisdom, grace.

My first experience of kindness from a fully-grown man was from my grandfather’s handyman Andy, who rescued me from a foot trapped in a cinder block where I was not supposed to play. He rescued me without reproach and sent me on my way with a gentle word of caution. When he showed up at my elementary school as custodian I was thankful. We rarely spoke, but his smiles and nods encouraged me: I was seen, remembered, strangely protected. I remember him coming to my third-grade classroom to tell my teacher President Kennedy had been shot. He was weeping without embarrassment. For years he was my touchstone of a gentle, feeling, dignified manhood.

My first real love of the spoken word came from hearing Martin Luther King, his voice rich and fervent on the transistor radio my grandfather carried around our house. In King’s voice I heard the rhythms of the King James Bible, suddenly alive and present with a promise I could cling to: a world where every child mattered, where justice wasn't just a forgotten word. A world where sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners, where the daughters of the famous and the daughters of the forgotten could feast together at a table large enough for all.

My first joy in science came in Mr. Reed’s chemistry class. I was in tenth grade, awkward, shy, mostly silent. He was large, dark-skinned, exuberant.  I had never seen a teacher take such joy in his subject. Molecules! Atoms! Compounds! Combustion! Every word was a poem. Every experiment an adventure. To him, the entire world, every tiniest particle, was a marvel worth watching. He made me believe I might be a scientist. That vision soon faded but the love of the world, the marvel at its mysteries, enriched my life and continues to this day.

The first challenge to my white-centric paradigm of parenting came from the littlest Richards boy, in the makeshift nursery in our West Philly church. Looking thoughtfully at the rag-tag collection of tattered dolls, he asked me,“does your daughter have any BROWN dolls at home?” The question had never occurred to me, or to the other young parents who had gathered supplies for our nursery. I remember him asking again, when my response was slow in coming: “does she have any BROWN dolls at home?” “No,” I told him. “But she will. And I’ll make sure we have some brown dolls here. Would that be better?” “Yes.” He nodded. Yes. Ever since, I’ve done my best to make sure the children’s spaces where I’ve been, nursery, playroom, preschool, school, have had books and toys that reflect ALL our children. Never perfect, but the question was a gift.

So many questions have been a gift.

Gene Denham dropped into my life during a dry, doubtful time. I was struggling to finish a PhD, exhausted and depressed from late nights with a baby who never slept, overwhelmed by the work of a big old house that ate every moment of free time. Gene was Jamaican, leader of an organization that partnered with my husband’s employer, Scripture Union. She was traveling to raise funds for her work with Jamaican students and spent two weeks in our front bedroom, heading off to speak at churches in the evenings, spending parts of each day with me and our little daughter.  Gene was full of enlightening stories, but also full of questions: why did we live where we did? What were my plans, as mother, as student? How did we balance the resources we had, against the larger need of the world? Every question probed the tight boundary of what it means to be a Christian here, in this country, in this time. Every question gently challenged assumptions of privilege, or protection, or the idea that my life, my resources, my time is my own. Her life was lived in contradiction of that privilege. Her honesty and beauty shook and rearranged me.

I could go on: Jean Matthieu from Côte d'Ivoire, the international student our church matched us with during the years he studied here. He taught our entire family to see with different eyes: to celebrate the fabulous wealth of an orchard full of apples, to question the need for so many choices at our overwhelming grocery stores, to grieve at the ways our culture divides children from their elders. So many miles from his own family, I remember him shaking his head when children at church were herded off to their own programs. “Families should worship together.” He was sure of it. “Families should be together.” His belief in the unity of families shaped ours, a gift that keeps on giving.

Otis, Carol, Georgette, Cricket. Mary. Jennifer. Charles. My heart is full when I think of all I’ve learned from your questions, insights, voices, lives.

I watch the protests, wonder, pray: is this the sea change we’ve been waiting for?

What more can I do to lend my weight toward that dream of justice rolling like a mighty stream?

How do I show up, stand up, listen better, love more deeply, courageously, consistently?

Those are questions you prompted, questions I’ll be sorting through in the days and weeks and years to come.

Of this I’m certain: the church, the body of Christ, is alive and well in black and brown and tan, not confined or defined by divisions and bruises of the white American evangelical church.

And while I’ve learned much, there is much much more to learn.

Lord, give me the humility to listen well and the courage to live out what I learn.

For today, thank you for these beautiful voices and beautiful lives.

Keep them safe.

Hear their prayer.  

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pentecostal Fire, Power, Prayer

Justice for George Floyd, Fibonacci Blue, May 26,2020
Creative Commons Attribution License
Langston Hughes, poet laureate of Harlem, asked

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—
And then run? . . .

   Maybe it just sags
   like a heavy load.
   Or does it explode?

That poem was written in 1922.

A century later, the question remains; what  happens to a dream deferred?

To me, it has always seemed that a dream deferred smolders, like hot coals, easily blown back to raging fire.

The title of the Malcolm X poem, Burn Baby Burn, written after the 1965 Watts Rebellion, became a catch phrase for racial riots of the following decade:

Sick an' tired
Tired of being

sick an' tired.
Lost in the wilderness

of white America . . .
burn, baby, burn
in time

will learn.

Who is the “he” that will learn?

When? How? How long?

Harold Floyd died last week on a Monday evening, May 23, while police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck. His repeated “I can’t breathe” echoed the last words of Eric Garner, who became unresponsive when held in a chokehold by New York police, then died not long after on July 17, 2014.

Justice for George Floyd, Fibonacci Blue
Creative Commons Attribution License
That year there were at least 100 unarmed black men, women and children killed by police officers across the country. Mapping Police Violence offers their names, photos, short bios. Tamir Rice was the youngest, a 12 year old playing with a bb gun in a Cleveland, Ohio park. Ernest Satterwhite was the oldest. After a traffic violation, a police officer followed him nine miles to his driveway in North Augusta, South Carolina, then shot him repeatedly through the driver’s side door. The father of four was 68.


Yesterday, looking toward Pentecost Sunday, a friend and I walked our church grounds in prayer, asking for the Holy Spirit to move, act, lead, teach, heal. We prayed for comfort, wisdom, unity, grace. For leaders who love and lead with courage. For healing of racial and partisan divisions. For those like us and those profoundly unlike us: God’s grace, mercy, blessing. We prayed for the power of the Holy Spirit. 

The fire of Pentecost Sunday is a fire of hope, not despair. Of love, not hate. The first fruit of the Holy Spirit, in Acts 2, is a miraculous bridging of ancient divides. Theologian Willie Jennings digs deep into the astonishment of suddenly shared language:

The Spirit creates joining. The followers of Jesus are now being connected in a way that joins them to people in the most intimate space—of voice, memory, sound, body, land, and place. It is language that runs through all these matters. . . .

The gesture of speaking another language is born not of the desire of the disciples but of God, and it signifies all that is essential to learning a language. It bears repeating: this is not what the disciples imagined or hoped would manifest the power of the Holy Spirit.

. . .  Speak a language, speak a people. God speaks people, fluently. And God, with all the urgency that is with the Holy Spirit, wants the disciples of his only begotten Son to speak fluently too. This is the beginning of a revolution that the Spirit performs. Like an artist drawing on all her talent to express a new way to live, God gestures the deepest joining possible, one flesh with God, and desire made one with the Holy One. (from Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (2017), 28-310)

Jesus’ last prayer for his disciples was for unity, that "deepest joining possible": that you will be one, as my father and I am one. Now his Spirit demonstrates a unity far beyond any his followers might have imagined:

Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs, we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.

This unity Jesus prayed for, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is not optional for followers of Christ. It’s the first, most visible witness. It’s the insistent challenge that permeates the life of the early church.

Gentiles? Yes.
Women? Yes.
Slaves? Prostitutes? Roman guards?
Yes. Yes. Yes.

This isn’t a unity of duty, but of love. Supernatural love, that flows out of our own experience of love beyond understanding. As we experience that love we begin to see others through the same lens. The joy or grief of our brother or sister begins to become our own.

That love is at the heart of who we are as Christians, the very foundation of the church of Christ. As Paul insists in Galatians 3: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The joy and challenge of this is that our place of belonging is no longer racial, national, political. As the Holy Spirit moves in and through us, we find walls of separation collapsing.

Yet, division continues.

Rich Vollodas, pastor of a multi-ethnic church in Queens, writes:

The deep trouble the church (in many respects, the white church) finds itself in related to race stems from a bad theology that sees racial justice and reconciliation as optional to the gospel. . . . As long as the gospel is reduced to a personal decision, resulting in private discipleship and a self-centered preoccupation, we will tragically miss the core of the gospel, which is a declaration of Jesus’ Lordship resulting in a new family, called from different places in life.

This fundamental theological perspective has often been “outsourced” to people of color. But we are at a point where a theology of the “new family of Jesus,” or in Dr. King’s words, “The Beloved Community,” can’t be seen as a specialization of theology for people interested in that kind of “secondary” content. The gospel’s application to race must be seen as part of the core content for every Christian.

If reconciliation, unity, "beloved community" are part of the core content for every Christian, how do we get there?

One start would be reading, widely and with humility, from Christians, and non-Christians, of color. Some starting points:
But maybe a better start, this Pentecost Sunday, would be to ask for the Holy Spirit to change our hearts, renew our minds, and draw us deeper into the unity we’re called to.

Then comes the work of listening, lamenting, repenting, inviting change:
Who have we labeled?
When have we seen others as “less than”?
What would it mean to truly grieve with those who grieve?
What practical steps can we take to love our neighbors – ALL neighbors - as ourselves?

Today, I’m back to the Porter’s Gate, reminded that our witness is always dependent on the extent we love each other. Not the “other” of our own church, or race, or partisan tribe, but the other of Acts 2: strangers, travelers, people of different races, different languages, those whose understanding of faith is different from our own, those who have no faith at all.

The power of the Holy Spirit is available to us if we ask, and wait, and open our hearts.
Power to live in unity, to serve in humility, to love with the love of Christ.

Power to be light in a very dark, divided world.

I pray it will be so.