Four walls and a cross, a font and a table might be important, but they aren’t much if we aren’t bringing God’s good news to where people are, to where it is desperately needed. And I think especially right now, we need to remember the many ways Jesus went to the people. He went to the people who were suffering. People who were sick in need of healing. People who were outcast, who were untouchable. He provided food for the hungry. Good news for the poor. Setting the oppressed free. If we are to take seriously what it means to be Christian, to follow Christ, we need to take these words very seriously.
I’m grateful to have a sister-in-law, who (unbeknownst to her) reminds me each year on this day that it’s a good day to reread Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
And I especially appreciated her encouragement this year to read it with a lens toward the parts that make me most uncomfortable (rather than necessarily the parts I think should be making OTHER people uncomfortable).
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
I’m preparing to return to Guatemala in March, and in preparation, I’ve been listening to an audiobook, Open Veins of Latin America about the history of Central and South America and the devastation of conquest, colonialism and violence. And it’s really hard to read/listen to the repeated accounts of how Europeans and the U.S. Have plundered these lands, abused, tortured and killed the people, over and over and over for centuries. For coffee. Sugar. Bananas. Precious metals. Chocolate. How do I grapple with my role in these underlying causes?
I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
Am I aware of all the times I’ve been more cautious than courageous? I was raised to believe that cautious is good. I work hard to cultivate courage.
I was inspired by this passage:
The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
I am both uncomfortable but also inspired at the thought of what it looks like for me to be a creative extremist. An extremist for love. An extremist for justice.
And I’m glad to be uncomfortable.
I’m increasingly convinced that we need to increase our ability to tolerate discomfort. And by “we,” I mean those of us with deep experiences of privilege. If you’re living under the daily oppression of racism, you not only are far too familiar with discomfort, but with suffering as well.
However, there are many of us with feet in multiple worlds. I move through the world with a lot of privilege. I have a lot of education, including a master’s degree. I’m white. I’m comfortably middle class. I’m an ordained minister. I hold a manager position in a hospital. I’m able-bodied (if a little vertically challenged 🙂 )
And I also have lived my life female. I identify as queer.
The thing is, none of this makes me a good or bad person. These are all aspects of my life, just like “chaplain” and “poet” and “dog mom” and “Lutheran.” They are all windows to different parts of the world, and my view may be different from yours. There may be some ways that I need to introduce you to the world I see. And there are likely many ways I need to have a clearer picture of the world where you live.
My hope is that we will find the places where our worlds intersect. My deeper hope is that together we will create a world where all are welcome, where all have what they need to survive and thrive. That all people have the opportunity to love and be loved.
And today I’m grateful for my many heroes who have led the way. Today, especially, for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood (sic), I beg God to forgive me.
I’ll say one thing about being home sick for four days … there’s been lots of time for reading by the fire. And reflecting on the books I’ve read. I was inspired by my reading friend Julia’s photo and reviews of her top nine books, so thought I’d add mine:
Jimmy Bluefeather by Kim Heacox was a beautifully written story set in SE Alaska about a master canoe carver, about relationships between the young and old, about life and death, loss and transformation. I look forward to reading it again.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk was one of the most interesting books I’ve every read, about the relationships between trauma and health, but even more about our incredible resilience. It was an intense read, and made me both sad and hopeful.
I was inspired to read The Wild Edge of Sorrow after reading an incredible interview with Francis Weller in The Sun magazine. His perspective on grief gave voice to so much I’ve witnessed and more that simply intuitively feels true. He is very clear about the importance of the work of metabolizing our grief and gives lots of suggestions for that process.
Fablehaven was a fantastic YA fantasy read, a series of five great books that I probably could have read more quickly except that I just didn’t want them to end. BUT … there’s a new story coming out in March…
To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey is set in Alaska at the end of the nineteenth century, told through a series of letters and journal entries between Colonel Allen Forrester as he explores the fictional Wolverine River, and his wife as she remains behind at the military barracks. Creatively written, authentically Alaskan. I hated to see this book end.
I listened to The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson as an audiobook. Incredible depth and breadth of research, braided through the stories of three particular African Americans who migrated to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively. Much of it was tough to listen to, and so important. I learned a lot, and highly recommend this book.
The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at it by Kelly McGonigal was mind-blowing. Her thesis is that the general consensus that stress is bad for us isn’t correct — rather, how we perceive our stress shapes how it impacts us. Stress can trigger our growth, increase our compassion and empathy, challenge us to new learning, build our resilience, push us to connect with others. Really important book, with lots of research, exercises, suggestions for putting her research into practice for healthier, happier living.
Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons by Jan Richardson is a beautifully-written book. I’ve loved and been moved, encouraged, inspired by everything she’s written, and this book is no different.
Comfortable With Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion by Pema Chodron. The Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron has taught me so much about embracing the present moment, trusting in the wisdom that’s available in every circumstance. She’s also very clear that when things are uncomfortable, that’s part of being human. Not a failure, not a disaster, not something to be judged. Simply another moment.
My number ten book would be Underground Airlines by Ben Winters — imagine a world where slavery wasn’t abolished in the Civil War, and there are still four states where slavery is enshirined in the Constitution. Fascinating, disturbing, thought-provoking read.
Here’s to more reading in 2017!