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. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tonight I am an angry black woman

I am so sick and so tired of seeing black men gunned down in the streets of our nation.
I am so sick and tired of seeing men who look like my brothers, my nephews, my son,
and the sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers of people I know and love
shot and killed by people who have sworn to protect them, to protect all of us.

I am so sick and tired of all the killing.
The excuses.
The explanations.
The rationalizing.
"If only he had/hadn't ________________, he wouldn't have been shot."
Haven't we seen every permutation?
Armed. Unarmed. Compliant. Non-compliant. Standing. Laying on the ground.
In their cars. Outside of their cars. Walking. Running. Silent. Belligerent.
Reaching for their license. Reaching for registration.
Asking for help. Pleading for breath.
Selling CDs. Selling cigarettes. Teenagers. Pre-teens. Adults.
Dead. Dead. Dead.
With the notable exception of the teacher who was intervening for a student with autism.

Just stop shooting black people.
Stop killing black people.

Cuz even if he does have a gun, a real gun and not a toy gun,
even if there are weapons or drugs in the car,
even if he doesn't comply with the command to prostrate himself on the street,
even if he is drunk or high,
even if he is a thief,
even if all those things are true,
(by the way, in most of these public cases, none of those things turn out to be true)
no one deserves to be shot and killed the way these men are being shot and killed.
Left to bleed out on the street or in their vehicles.
Without medical aid or CPR or assistance of any kind.
Why not start with the taser?
Why not shoot in the legs?

Oh wait, they did shoot the teacher in the leg. The teacher who was on the ground with his hands up in the air, pleading for his life and the life of his student. That guy still got shot.

Just stop shooting people.
Stop killing people.

I know I've posted this link before. But the song means more and more as the years pass.

We who believe in freedom cannot rest. 
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes -
until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons, 
is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons.

People, go stand in front of a mirror or pull out a journal and talk to yourself about how you feel about black people and black men in particular. What comes to mind when you think about your personal interactions with black people? If you don't have any interactions with black people or anyone who doesn't look like you on a daily basis, then that's part of the problem - ignorance.
Not knowing. Not being exposed to people who aren't like you.
That needs to change. Period.

Then talk to your neighbors about your fear and their fear and your racism and their racism.
Talk to your families. Talk to your spouses and your children.
Be honest about your prejudices, your privileges, and your pride.
Tell the truth about the ways in which you have diminished the value of the lives of other people.
People who don't look like you. People who don't live the way you live.
People whose sexuality, country of origin, first language, manner of dress, or religion don't match yours.
People you dismiss, disregard, disdain.
People whose public executions no longer move you or make you angry.

Think about it. Talk about it. Journal about it.
And then do something.
Stand up. Speak up. Stand out. Speak out.
Let your voice be heard - this shit is just not right. Not right.
Enough is enough.
If any of this is going to change, it has to start with me. It has to start with you.
Right now. Tonight. Think. Ask yourself hard questions. Seek difficult answers.
Make a plan. No excuses.
Enough is enough.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Water water everywhere

About an hour ago, I was seated at our dining room table working on a project. My daughter came in from babysitting and informed me that a fire hydrant just up the street from us was on. Gushing water. There was a truck there with workers doing something or other, and water was running down the street. She declared that she was going to walk up and wet her feet in the water.

Immediately, I closed my computer, abandoned my project, and joined her and our teeny tiny dog on a wet adventure. I was the first one out of my flip flops, and I plunged my feet into the narrow stream. Perfection. I dropped my head back and laughed out loud.

How many times have I read and heard about the importance of allowing my feet to touch the earth, the grass, and the dirt? To be fully grounded on this planet of ours? Well, I'm not doing that. Not with all the ants making anthills in the grass and all the chemicals that are spread all over our lawns. (Please forgive us, Lord, for the myriad ways in which we poison the very earth beneath our feet.)

This afternoon, I put my feet in that water and I kicked it up on the lawn of the house we were standing in front of. I splashed it onto my dog - who was obviously as happy to be wet as my daughter and I were. All the people who drove past us smiled broadly at us. I bet they were jealous of how much fun we were having. A couple walked past with their dog and told us that it looked like we were having fun. But they didn't take off their shoes. They didn't step into the magnificence of that abundant flow. Too bad for them.

I worry about water. Drought. Flooding. Melting glaciers. Rising sea levels. Busted pipes. Aging water heaters.
And what about the residents of Flint, Michigan? Subjected to some politician's bad idea about how to save money by getting water from a different river. Complaints were lodged for months. None were taken seriously. Bottled water. Filtered water. What about people who can light their water on fire because of fracking and other industrial experiments that use unwitting citizens as their canaries, their guinea pigs?
What does it feel like to be afraid of your tap water?
Water water everywhere. Except when there isn't any water anywhere.
Or the water you have access to is too dangerous to drink.

Earlier this summer, I went on a silent retreat. My third visit to The Jesuit Center.
I should write about those eight blissful, tearful, beautiful, wonder-filled days of prayer and journaling.
Anyway, there were two women on the retreat who, when they brushed their teeth,

The first time, I chalked it up as a fluke, convinced that she was the only person in the nation who practiced such a wantonly wasteful habit.
The second time, I nearly screamed.
Different woman. Different age bracket. Different race. Same horrendous act of excess.
I was grateful that we were in silence, or I might have said something mean and insulting.
I was incredulous that there are still people who let the water run,
waste that precious life-sustaining resource while they brush their teeth.

After the second sighting, I took a few deep breaths and asked myself, "Why do you think you saw this twice, Gail? What are you supposed to learn from this double take?"
Almost immediately it came to me: Abundance. Provision. I have been blessed with so much in my life. Beyond all my imagining and dreams. Even though I can be so frugal, with money, with water, with food, with my love - there is abundance all around me. Be grateful, Gail. Give thanks.

Thankfully, I didn't see either of those two women or any one else repeat their water wasting offense.

Today, standing in that water, I thought about the drought we have been experiencing here in the South. I thought about wildfires out west. I thought about people all over the world who would have been incredulous at the intentional, unrestrained release of that liquid gold, from the fire hydrant directly to the gutter. For a split second, I asked God to forgive us for airing out the water line or rebuilding the pressure or whatever else the workers were doing. And then I went back to splashing water and waving at my jealous neighbors.

Friday, September 09, 2016

School's Back from Summer

The bulletin board in the front hallway at a school I visited last week

The school year has begun for most students in the US.
Supplies have been picked over at Target and Walmart and Staples.
School uniforms still look fresh and new.
Teachers are still energized and excited about their lessons.
White boards are still white.
Textbook pages are still tight and unstained.

Even as a homeschooling mom, never granted a break from my kids all year round (except for my escapes across the sea to my beloved Spain), I looked forward to this time of year. New pencils and erasers. New planning books. Computers lined up. The printer filled with unwrinkled paper and fresh ink cartridges. Renewed hopes that I would become an enthusiastic cook and organized instructor. Hopes that were inevitably dashed within the first two or three weeks of the year - but I was incurably optimistic every fall.

Last Monday, August 29th, I spent over an hour welcoming students into the cafeteria of the Westerly Hills Academy here in Charlotte, a high poverty public school that serves both elementary and middle school aged children. Every weekday morning, students arrive at school between 7:30 and 8:00 am for breakfast. Classes begin at 8:15. Along with a gaggle of other volunteers, I sat in the lunchroom giving students their meal codes, the number they would give to the cashiers in order to have their meals provided for them all year long.

Crisp white shirts. Khaki pants. Blue pants. Sweaters.
Hair in braids or curls. Beads and ribbons.
Mothers and fathers accompanied some.
Others wandered in by themselves.
An entire family dropped off the oldest sibling. The youngest child in that family cried vigorously as they left.
Mostly smiles and excitement about being in school that first day.
Some sad, nervous, unsure expressions.

One little boy took his number from me and, as he walked away, tears welled up in his deep brown eyes. Based on his name, I made the assumption that he was Latino, so I switched over to Spanish. When I asked him if he needed help, his eyes brightened momentarily, then he shook his head somberly as he took his leave. A moment or two after he sat down to eat his morning meal, I noticed a man who looked like he was the child's father sit down beside him at the table. At that point, the little guy lost his composure completely. The tears that brimmed his eyes cascaded down his cheeks in torrents. The man rubbed his back and spoke tenderly to him. One of the teachers sat down on the other side of the young student and whispered assurances of her own. As the three of them made their way out into the hallway, presumably to take the first grader to his classroom, I wished him a happy first day and a great year in first grade.

I toyed with the idea of keeping the multi-page handout with all the children's names, grades, and lunchroom codes. That list would have served as a prayer guide for me all year. So many names and faces. So many stories. So much need. So much need. I decided to err on the side of respecting the privacy of the students and left the sheets there. I can and will still pray for those precious children as they work their way through their studies, their fears, and their many challenges. I don't need to know their names. God already does.

Tomorrow morning a new set of new students will begin a new school year.
Tomorrow I go back to seminary for my second year of study.
Tomorrow a new cohort of seminarians will join the journey.
I don't expect there will be many crisp white shirts - other than those on the professors.
There won't be many pairs of khakis either.
And no one will be given a meal voucher code to use at a cash register.

But we will all arrive with our own adult fears and challenges.
We will hide tears - although some will probably shed a few. Myself included.
We will disagree with other students.
We will disagree with our professors.
We will wonder how we could ever have been so naive about so much related to our Christian faith.
We will question and we will doubt much of what we have heard in church all our lives.

And then we will try to figure out whether and how any of these readings and discussions affect the ways in which we live and move in the world, the ways in which we interact with those whose faith is not our own. Those whose lives do not parallel our own. Those whose stories we cannot possibly fathom. We will wrestle with whether our understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ really is good news for the world - and if it is, how do we share that good news? We will wonder aloud about just how much we have corrupted that good news and tried to make it good North American news or good Protestant news or good Presbyterian news or some exclusive form of good news that only the chosen few (us, of course) can understand and benefit from.
There will be blood, sweat, and tears.
And I cannot wait to get there and wade into the fray.
Theology 1 and New Testament 1 - here I come!

School's back from summer.

One of my favorite books of prayer is The Book of a Thousand Prayers, compiled by Angela Ashwin.
This prayer was taken from that book. I have modified it, making it personal by adding "we" and "us."

Grant, Lord, to all of us who study and those who teach us,
the grace to love that which is worth loving,
to know that which is worth knowing,
to value what is most precious to you,
and to reject whatever is evil in your eyes.
Give us a true sense of judgement,
and the wisdom
to see beneath the surface of things.
Above all, may we search out and do
what is pleasing to you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
after Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471)

Can I ask a favor of you? Whenever you see a school bus, when you see students on public transportation, when you see students being dropped off by weary and wary parents at school, when you see students walking or biking or skateboarding to school, would you say a prayer for all students everywhere? For enough textbooks and notebooks. For passionate and compassionate teachers. For enough food to eat not only during the school day, but also over the weekend when one or two meals per day are not provided by the school. For safety and security at home. For hope in their future. For peace.

I know there are millions, perhaps billions of school-age children in need around the world. I remember the children I saw in the cities, towns, and villages of Haiti, in their brightly colored uniforms, intently pushing their way through traffic and crowds, through fields and down rocky narrow paths to school. Very few of them are likely to leave their villages for college or for a better life. But each of them, all of them deserve just that - a better life. Praying for all children everywhere is a big ask, I realize, but I believe in a big God.

I remember the faces of children in the ironically named "Paradise" in Nicaragua, in Sevilla in Spain, and the faces I saw at Westerly Hills last week. I remember their bright and fear-filled eyes. I remember their ready smiles and their nervous giggles. I remember seeing glimmers of hope in spite of the tremendous and mounting odds that are not ever in their favor. Will you join me in praying for them?

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Thankful Thursday

Don't let my silence fool you.
Don't let my lack of Thankful Thursday posts fool you.
Gratitude overflows down here in Charlotte.

Flipping back through my journal tonight, I found things like this:

"I just ate a delicious peach. Lord, thank you for its delightful deliciousness."

"My son is leaving  for college tomorrow. Lord, in your mercy, please protect my beloved child. Your beloved child. In whom we are both very well pleased. Thank you for the gift that he is and has been for us. I will miss him, but I know this is good."

I described an encounter I had with a little girl at an outdoor children's science museum. She was probably five years old or so. She approached me and commented, "I like your earrings. Are you a mama?" I responded: "Thank you. Yes, I am a mama, but I don't have my children with me today." As I walked away with my friend and her son, I turned and bid her farewell. She turned to me with confusion on her face and set me straight by clarifying: "I'm not leaving." So sweet.

One of the highlights of this summer for me was watching the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Certainly there were many issues and problems and fears. Would there be proper facilities? Would the athletes be safe? Would there be terrible traffic issues? I kept thinking about all the years of hard work, the years of not having dessert, the hundreds of competitions and practices and tryouts, the miles traveled, the money spent. How did the equestrian competitors get their horses to Rio? I wondered about the athletes who trained for years in their chosen discipline, were sponsored by their families, friends, and countries, arrived in Rio and lost their first race. Truly they were "one and done." I thought about those had a false start in a racing event - and never got to even run their races. I watched athletes weep with joy and gratitude at the end of events. I watched others weep because of injuries. So much passion. So much courage. So much joy. So much wonder. I am grateful to have been a witness to it. I am grateful that there were no terrorist acts. I am even grateful for the Ryan Lochte foolishness because of all the conversations around white privilege that have come out of that series of idiotic events.

The man who won the 400 meter track and field race is from South Africa. That young man's mother was a world class athlete earlier in her life, but she was never permitted to represent the country internationally because she was (and is) a woman of color in a nation governed by the brutal and racist system of apartheid. Anyway, for those who are not familiar with track and field, the 400 meter race is one of the toughest. It is a full lap around the track, run at top speed. The longest sprint. One of the most painful races a track athlete can run. The athletes who compete in that race stay in their lanes the whole way around the track, so they have what's called a staggered start. They begin the race a yard or two away from each other. Lane 1 is the inside lane, the one closest to the infield, and the runner in lane one begins the race with all the other runners further ahead on the track. Lane 8 is the outside lane. The runner out there cannot see any of the other competitors when the race begins. The athletes placed in lanes 1 and 8 in a final heat are only rarely in contention to win the race.

For the first time in Olympic history, the winner of the 400 meter race was in lane 8. Not only did he win the race, but also he set a new world record. He ran the entire race without ever seeing any of his competitors on the track. He led the way from start to finish.

And that got me to thinking and wondering - how hard is it to keep going, to keep running as fast as you can, even when you don't know where the other guys are and whether they are catching up to you? How do you press on and do what you know you need to do, even when there is no one else to push you and keep you motivated? Where does that inner strength come from? I am grateful for the lessons and questions and hope and excitement the Olympic games brought to my life this summer.

I had the tremendous honor and responsibility of participating in the baptism of the daughter of a dear friend of mine. To stand with their family, to present her for baptism, to ask the congregation to commit themselves to teach her and walk with her and "strengthen her family ties with the household of faith" was one of the highlights of my summer, of my year. I love that little girl and her entire family. Her mother and I are soul-sister friends. I am grateful for my church family and for the deep friendships I have with people there. I am grateful for the welcome my family and I have received there and for the many opportunities to use my gifts, to teach, to preach, to ask questions, to listen, and to love these co-travelers on my faith journey.

Standing in my study recently, I pulled out a few journals, both my regular journals and my travel journals as well. Flipped through a few pages. Reread a few pages. Looked at stickers and ticket stubs and magazine clippings tucked between pages. I have met some fabulous people in my life. I have traveled to beautiful and devastated places. I have laughed and wept. I have been blessed going out and blessed coming in. For all of that, I am grateful. For the journals that record so much of it, I am grateful. For the bookshelves, the walls, the roof, the floor, for this home we have, I am grateful.

For life and breath, for hope and joy, for strong shoulders I can cry on, for my husband's ability to make me laugh, for my daughter's cooking, for my adorable little dog, for our new neighbors, for my ongoing friendship with the neighbors who moved away, for x-rays and band-aids, for my reliable car, for silence, for prayer, for the love of God, family, friends, for all of this, I am grateful.

Thanks be to God.