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!
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is hands-down one of the most fascinating people in all history. Praised and doubted, her integrity questioned not only in her own life time (Matthew 1:19) but also in ours, Christmas is the time of year when the Church ponders her the most. However, in a special pre-Christmas post, Sarah Degner Riveros shares with […]
I started to write last night about Winter Solstice and words and particularly the word “invitation,” which I’ve been mulling over for the past year. I wrote about how that word prodded me to try new things, sometimes small and silly, sometimes brave. Often memorable. … Continue reading Longest Night
I do “nice” really well.
I have friends who are pretty sure there’s not a mean bone in my body.
And once I dated a woman who told me she just wanted to see me finally get angry. I’m pretty sure she could tell that I bottle up my anger. But then, when I did finally dare show my anger, just a little, we ended up breaking up just days later.
So much for positive reinforcement.
I’m a hospital chaplain. I can witness anger and grief and despair and rage, and generally stay pretty calm and grounded. But I don’t have a clue what to do with my own anger … often I can’t even quite identify it, and usually it comes out in tears.
Sometimes it also comes out in cursing. Usually to myself, and to God.
And for the last couple days I’ve been thinking a lot about anger and language and expression, and how I manage the tension between not wanting to offend, wanting to keep spaces of discourse open so that as many voices can hear and be heard as possible, and yet also recognizing that sometimes the offensive language IS the language to express deep frustration, anger, despair, grief.
Far too often those of us who prefer to stay comfortable have shut down the voices of those who have needed to speak a very real, very important message of grief, injustice, righteous anger. And when I shut down that anger, it’s a way of distancing my self and “othering” someone else, keeping myself apart — insulated — from their pain and anger in a way that also can dishonor their pain.
The Lutheran Church tends to do a pretty spectacular job of this kind of nice that avoids all conflict. Even my (Catholic) hospital system has a culture of “Providence nice.” Jesus, however, didn’t operate that way.
As I write this, the second day of the season of Advent is coming to a close. This is my favorite season of the church year, the four weeks preceding Christmas, a time of preparation, of waiting, of sitting in the darkness watching for signs of hope. This is a season of trying to comprehend the insanity of God loving the world so much as to show up in our midst as a fragile infant, born to a poor, young, unmarried mom, and leaping into all the messiness and brokenness of people and politics and relationships.
This Advent, I’m following a devotion series on the theme #FuckThisShit.
You’ll find Day 2, by Alisha Gordon, here.
Rev. Tuhina Rasche, one of the pastors who conceptualized this series of devotions, says this:
There is a deep need to express one’s self on a visceral level. After a tremendous experience such as the death of a loved one, an act of betrayal, an experience of righteous anger, or a sense that something is not right with the world, there are many people who yearn for a way to communicate something they feel deep within their souls. Communicating such a deep emotion cannot be accompanied by flowery and polite language; if anything, the language that accompanies such emotions communicates a rawness and a sense of being both literally and figuratively torn open. There is a desire for God to rend the heavens, to have things torn open to enter into the world. Like the heavens being torn open in Mark’s Gospel at Jesus’ baptism. Or like Christ’s flesh being torn at the crucifixion… and bearing those scars in the resurrection, giving validity to our hopes, yearnings, and anguish.
We are not using #FuckThisShit to be edgy or radical. We are not using this to be “cool.” We are using these words because they are troubling. They are unsettling. They are being used to move us from places of complacency. If anything, we are using these words to reflect the brokenness of the humanity in which we live. We are using these words to reflect a deep sense of heartbreak and yearning to be in restored relationship with one another, and to be in restored relationship with God. We are using these words to call out for Christ to come again …
To be very clear, this choice of language is not a response to the inconsequential — a scratched car, not getting concert tickets, finding sausage on your vegetarian pizza. It is a response to waking up again this morning to news of an active shooter on the Ohio State campus. To the long litany of names of African American men and women who have been killed in what should be routine traffic stops. To the reality that we have a president-elect who has said vile, offensive things to and about women, Muslims, immigrants … and if I were a Muslim immigrant woman (and I work with many of them), whether I would actually say it or not, I would want to say #FuckThisShit.
I will be forever grateful to feminist Christian ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison for all I learned from her essay, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love.” She writes,
“Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to others and it is always a vivid form of caring.” She goes on to write, “Where anger rises, there the energy to act is present.”
Yes, anger can be destructive and lead to harm. But it also can push us to work for change and justice and a more loving world where all are welcome.
And as I work as a hospital chaplain, and look around at the state of the world, I am increasingly convinced that one of the most important growing edges for us is to increase our ability to tolerate discomfort.
The more comfortable we are, the more we need to get used to discomfort, learn how we respond to it, learn how to stay grounded and loving even when we’re in the midst of chaos, pain, uncertainty.
Not long ago I sat in the family room of our Emergency Department, with a woman who had just learned her husband had died. When she found out I was a chaplain, she immediately said “I don’t want to talk religion.” We didn’t. What she did do, over the following hours, was grieve, curse, and tell stories about a man who “If he loved you, you knew it,” and who used “fuck” as both noun and verb, “as fuck” as his most common adjective, and so on. And that was time was absolutely sacred ground.
There’s no question that this series of Advent devotions won’t be for everyone. That’s fine. But as I watch it spread over Facebook and notice the responses, I’m noticing it reaching a lot of people. Many of whom are not, and will not be the churched.
The woman in the ER wanted nothing to do with religion or church. But I’d also bet she lives with an assumption that “Church” wants nothing to do with her.
And that is where my fears lie for the church … not that we’ll become a place where “fuck” and “shit” have a regular place in our litanies or preaching, but that we’ll (continue to) be a place where those who are hungry for some hope or some love in the midst of violence, poverty, abuse, despair will never feel they can bring their whole selves. A place where those who bring their whole selves, in vulnerability, rawness, brokenness, will be told they need to change to keep us comfortable, rather than be welcomed, and chance that we all may be transformed.
It is my hope that there will be more places where we can be honest about our anger, regardless of the language, and truly be heard. That change may come, along with balm for the wounded places we carry.
I expect to be uncomfortable this Advent season. Hell, I’ve been uncomfortable all year for a variety of reasons. I hope that discomfort will also push my creativity, my prayers, my writing, and whoever it is that God is currently calling forth from me. I’m grateful for this opportunity to engage the discomfort.
Meanwhile, I’m still pondering how I’ll write about and talk about this on Facebook. I’d rather have you read it than turn away because of the language. And, the language matters. For the record, there’s also a profanity-free version of the prompts titled #RendTheHeavens.
“Oh, that the Christmas miracle of God-in-a-manger wouldn’t be
just a one-time magic trick.
Because god we could use a Christmas miracle these days
because by now the ice and the snow and the darkness are
already old friends but we haven’t even
reached the darkest day yet.
And I’m scared. And I am bleeding. And I am tired.
Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down…”
You can read the rest of Micah Martin’s Advent Psalm of Lament (inspiration for the devotion series) here.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing. Might tag it #FuckThisShit. Might tag it #RendTheHeavens. Maybe #FTS/#RTH. But however I tag it, may my writing be honest and vulnerable and Spirit-led.
May we be blessed with discomfort in these darkest days, and also be surprised by hope, by connection, by the unexpected.