Monday, September 26, 2016

A Three-Church Sunday

Yesterday morning, my daughter and I attended three different churches. We started at our home church, First Presbyterian Church, a predominantly white church here in Charlotte, at the 9 am service where my heart was deeply touched and my spirit fed by the senior pastor's powerful sermon about prayer and suffering, about our responsibility as people of God and his responsibility as a white person, in particular, to be people of peace, love, faith, and reconciliation. 

After his sermon, we left for Sunday school at First United Presbyterian Church, a predominantly African American church, where they are in the middle of a series of classes related to the Belhar Confession and the Confession of 1967. The Belhar Confession was written in response to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s. The writers of that confession intended it to confirm their faith in God, the authority of God's law, and the need for Christians to obey the law of God rather than the laws and teachings of the German state, especially where those laws contradicted the teachings of Scripture and sought to dictate the life and actions of the church. The Confession of 1967 was written in response to the injustices prevalent in this nation during the time of Jim Crow and segregation and all other racially motivated wrongdoing. The continued relevance of those confessions more than 50 years later reminds us that there is much work to be done, much healing to be experienced, and many barriers to be taken down so that we can be reconciled with one another. 

After the SS class, we went back to FPC for the baptism of the grand-daughter of one of my church friends - how timely it was, after the week we've had here in Charlotte, a week in which division and fear have driven people apart yet again, that the baby baptized and welcomed into the family of God and the faith family of our church today was a beautiful little African American girl. 

On our way home, my daughter and I decided to visit Caldwell Presbyterian Church - where the Pastor used the time of his sermon to open the mike, as it were, for the people of the congregation to speak words of grief and hope, sorrow and truth after the events of this week. Then the mayor of Charlotte added her voice to calls for reconciliation and unity in the city. Following the service, Kristiana and I joined that welcoming, loving congregation for a potluck lunch.

Do you hear a theme running through all of this? The work of reconciliation in the family of God, in the church of Jesus Christ in this broken, beautiful, hurting and hopeful city. At three different Presbyterian churches, we saw gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor, republican and democrat, and many who don’t fit neatly into any of those categories - together, singing, praying, and being baptized into the family of our great and merciful God.

It would be easy for us to think that we as individuals have done nothing wrong, nothing to cause the division that became painfully and angrily evident in our city this week or in our nation over these past few years. It would be easy for each of us to think, "I’m not part of the problem, I’m not part of the group of agitators that has sown seeds of fear and hatred in the aftermath of Tuesday’s tragic shooting." And that may be true, but I don't think we can let ourselves off the hook that easily. 

One of the mainstays in our Presbyterian liturgy is our time of confession. We read responsively and as one voice words of confession of sin, sins of thought, word, and deed. I must say that there are times when I read those words of confession aloud with the congregation, but inwardly I recoil and think - “I didn’t do that. I didn’t act that way.” Whether or not we have committed the specific sin being confessed, we pray those words on behalf of ourselves and others. We pray those words as a part of the ongoing work of being reconciled with God and one another after we wander away from the work God has called us to do. 

In his book, Fear of the Other, William Willimon, former bishop in the United Methodist Church, says this, “Christians, on the basis of the great grace we have received from Christ, are always apologizing, confessing, repenting.” 

There is a lot of apologizing, confessing, and repenting that is needed.
I almost ended that sentence with, "in our city and our nation."
But it's broader than that, and it is also narrower than that.
We need to apologize, confess, and repent before God, before ourselves, before those we don't know, and before those yet to be born.

Do we not need to apologize, confess, and repent for:
* the damage we do to our planet, to our future, and to the future of our children with the chemicals and poisons we spray so freely and frequently on our lawns, trees, fruit, vegetables, and soil?
* our unwillingness to take seriously the repercussions of our way of life? the size of our houses and the number of our cars, the overabundance of clothing and shoes we own, the staggering percentage of our food that we discard, the number of paper towels and paper napkins, disposable cups and plates we have donated to landfill, most of which will never decompose?
* the ease with which we shrug our shoulders and just head back to the mall for more stuff we don't need given to us in plastic bags we don't reuse while sipping excessively sweet drinks from plastic cups that will be in plastic bags in landfills for many, many, many years?
* the ways in which we perpetuate fear and anger and hatred against others, against anybody and everybody we don't understand? people of other religions, other language groups, other nations, other customs? people who don't look like us or think the way we think? 
* our willful silence when we hear and see people we know and love do and say things that we know are wrong or racist or sexist or homophobic or xenophobic?
* our indifference towards the suffering of the homeless and poor, the weak and infirm, the imprisoned, as well as refugees who are victims of undeserved violent acts at the hand of the state? 
* our willful blindness when we are confronted with evidence that contradicts our strongly held beliefs about other people - and about ourselves?

Last night, I went back to my church for a meeting of the elders. I participated in that meeting by reading something I wrote about reconciliation and building the beloved community here in Charlotte and included a description of my three-church-morning. As some of us made our way out of the church at the end of the evening, one of my friends said something like, "I'm worried about you, Gail. Three churches in one day? We've gotta keep an eye on you..." I responded, "It's an addiction, brother. It's an addiction." We all laughed as we made our way out into the darkness of the downtown area of this city we all love - just one block from where so many of last week's protests were concentrated. I know the hundreds of National Guard soldiers and police officers patrolling the streets had a lot to do with that. I also know that the thousands of people praying and preaching and talking about and taking the leadership related to peace, real peace, the peace that we have to work relentlessly to create and maintain had a lot to do with that as well. I know that discussions like the one we had just concluded, hard discussions, uncomfortable discussions, at seminaries like the one I attend, at white churches, at black churches, at other churches that more accurately reflect the diversity of the city and the church of Jesus Christ are having an impact as well. I know that the work of people of every faith and people who claim no religious affiliation or interest at all - all the work that is being done towards peace, wholeness, reconciliation, and connection, it is all making a difference. I felt it all day yesterday. I felt it last night. 

The work that is ahead of us is staggeringly challenging.
The work that must be done within each of us is too.
But if what I saw at the three churches my daughter and I visited yesterday is any indication,
if the videos I have seen posted on Facebook by my friends, videos of peaceful people talking to and hugging police officers and National Guards, videos of choirs singing in the streets of Charlotte, are any indication, if the work being done to challenge the imbalances and injustice embedded within our city's public school system is any indication, then we have reason for hope.
It won't be easy. It won't be quick. It certainly won't make the news.
But every act of mercy, every act of kindness,
every act of forgiveness and reconciliation,
every apology offered, every pardon granted,
every friendship that develops across boundary lines that have been established to keep people apart,
each one will be a brick, not thrown through at a person or through a window,
but rather a brick that forms part of the foundation, the piles, the decking, 
every part of the bridge we so desperately need to connect us one to another. 

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