Fifty Shades of Changing the Subject

ImageA friend and former intern who serves one congregation on the US side of the border and one in Mexico mentioned the issue of whiteness in the Transfiguration story that is read this Sunday in many churches. He writes: “In this dazzling display of divine glory, Jesus’ clothes become white. I know that the Biblical text does not say that Jesus himself is white, but centuries of euro-centric liturgical art with a blue-eyed Jesus, as well as the upcoming feature film, seem to suggest otherwise. …In the Church, with our funeral palls and baptismal garments, we often use the color white to symbolize something good, pure, and holy. …Perhaps unintentionally, our liturgical practices seem to perpetuate this white superiority. … I am considering addressing these issues head-on this Sunday, but I don’t know if I want to go there.”

My colleague is expressing sensitivity to race, privilege and power as a White pastor in a Mexican community. His comments reminded me that three days after Transfiguration Sunday, we come to Ash Wednesday and Psalm 51:7, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” I flagged the line and composed my own post alerting fellow clergy who might be preparing Ash Wednesday worship materials to consider the impact of the verse. Soon, the responses rolled in. Some appreciated my post. Many did not.  What’s telling is how frequently my original point about race was forcibly sidelined.

This happened in response to my colleague’s post as well when responders began to zero in on the physics of light. Here is a sampling:

Isaac Newton built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of color based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colors of the visible spectrum…if you ask a scientist, white is a color – it contains the whole spectrum – and black is the absence of color. If you ask an artist – who deals in pigments rather than wavelengths – the answer is the opposite…I am not an artist, but I don’t think white is the presence of all colors. Isn’t black made when many colors are stirred together?

This is the evasive response to a pastor seeking support to discern his ongoing response to issues of race, privilege and power. Race as a reality that shapes our lives personally, as well as the social and economic structures in which we live, was also dismissed more directly: Caucasians are not white, only albinos are white…I think sometimes we need to get over our “whiteness” and join the human race. Sure, when future Trayvon Martins can get over their “blackness.”

In response to my post, the physics of light was not addressed; instead the conversation shifted to snow and laundry. Granted the psalm uses the imagery of snow and laundry (“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow”), but my concern was obviously directed to considering the impact of that imagery in a society that is still divided by race, in a church that remains 97% White. It’s easier to talk about snow:

Compare new fallen snow as opposed to that leftover pile slowly melting at the edge of the parking lot – it’s filled with dirt, leaves, etc. “White” is not the issue unless you are focusing on your own prejudice instead of God’s Word…I’m still trying to figure out how to talk to the youth in my congregation for whom snow is mostly something they see in pictures or maybe if they happen to go to Flagstaff in the winter….Clean snow is white–dirty snow is black, brown, yellow, red–whatever happens to be contaminating it. This is a fact, not a racial statement…in rural, open-country Minnesota, when the snow is no longer white, it’s not because of the gunk from our cars and such. It’s because the wind blows the snow across the fields, and when it’s done with the snow, it picks up the fine, dry, black soil and deposits it on top of the drifts. That beautiful, wonderful, rich, dark soil is what brought our ancestors out here–not the “pure” white snow!

And laundry:

I think this passage is an image of laundry practices. Beating clothes with a stick so that they are washed white… this verse is not about skin color, it’s a metaphor on laundry. You want your whites to be white, and I hate it when my clergy blacks begin to be a bit gray… Did you know there’s a special laundry soap for darks?…My guess is that part of the appeal of whiteness, in this context (i.e. laundry), is that it requires a tremendous amount of work. We forget this because we have white fabric everywhere so we think it is the default… Maybe it’s because I still do the laundry in my household, but I have always associated those words with the ability of bleach and stain spray to remove the yuck we got all over our clothes…If you’re so concerned, translate it as “De-lint me and I will be blacker than my clergy shirt.”

But I was not asking for a detailed consideration of snow and laundry. Some who addressed my comment directly stated that our words do not matter, it’s actions that count. I agree wholeheartedly that words without actions are empty, even dangerous if we convince ourselves that we have done our duty by voicing a concern. But in my experience, words can have a mighty impact for good or for ill. Words can inspire or incite. Silence can be holy or complicit in evil. It was also pointed out that skipping or omitting texts is always a BAD idea even though our lectionary omits texts all the time and I was not necessarily suggesting we skip a text. As some pointed out, other translations are available.

As in the response to my friend’s post, the very reality of racial privilege was diminished as in a comment stating that White is not always preferable—because think of the expression, “white-washing.” Yes, white-washing. I’m thinking about it. When a colleague says that he is all for sensitivity and addressing painful issues from our past, but… to me, that white-washes the ongoing pain in our present.

Facebook is probably not a good place for such a discussion, and yet, perhaps it allows our true colors to come out. As we approach Ash Wednesday, I am also thinking of Jesus’ words to remove the log from my own eye before zeroing in on the speck in my neighbor’s eye. White privilege is not an illusion. It is not something in the past. It is a log in my eye that I cannot remove by my own power and so on Ash Wednesday, I will mark the sign of ashes on my sisters and brothers and I will wear it myself. I will remember that I am dust and to dust I shall return. And I will give thanks that God’s mercies are new every morning and that our conversation and conversion continues…

Advertisements

Companion to Strangers

Companion to Strangers (Building bonds in sorrow and love)

We read about the demise of church. Numbers are down. Church buildings are disintegrating or in closure. Metaphors are grim. The church as ship carrying us through the stormy seas has become the church as Titanic. Of course, we are people of resurrection. New forms are emerging like green shoots from dead stumps, and others shimmer on a horizon I find myself squinting at and unable to see clearly. In the meantime, I follow the shape of the church before my eyes. What I see does not discourage me in the least.

A year ago I received a Facebook message from a colleague on the other side of the country. He wrote from Los Angeles to tell me about a young woman he knew who was living in Brooklyn with her husband and two young sons. The family had not yet connected to an East Coast church community but had reached out to my colleague from the shadowlands of trauma. Although they lived in Brooklyn, this husband and wife were spending almost all their time in the pediatric intensive care unit of a Manhattan hospital where their 15-month-old son was dying.

I was in another hospital bed when the message came. I had just emerged from surgery with a new hip. It would take a few weeks before I was able to venture out, but my seminary intern was fit for the task even if she would have described herself as limping toward that intensive care unit, halting and unsteady before the door. Her ministry was all the better for that.

Pastorally, she limped and stumbled with them on that ground where no one can go with steady feet. She took the time needed—waiting, praying, weeping, listening, sitting. She was young and inexperienced for the task, but really, how does experience make such a journey easier? We often say that young people—and children—are the future of the church as if their powerful ministry is not happening here and now.

She helped Charlie, the five-year-old big brother, say good-bye. She stayed beside his parents as they hung on the edge of impossible decisions. I was steady enough to attend the funeral. There was Charlie, serious, sad, and clinging to his mother. His baby brother was there too, laughing from the huge photos prepared by coworkers in his father’s design company, who did what they knew how to do.

My intern preached, and I led prayers around a small white coffin that was tenderly covered with favorite stuffed animals. Afterward I was ready to help the family find a church home closer to where they lived, but they stayed with us. We shared a bond, tethered by sorrow and love from one side of the country, one side of the river, to another.  (to read the rest go to: http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-02/companion-strangers)

Transfiguration in the ER

ImageIn the ER, someone accidentally bumps into an aide carrying a bedpan. Urine sloshes onto the floor. I watch unwitting people step in it and track it all around the ward for about twenty minutes before the environmental team comes to clean it up. Hours later, my mother is admitted and I pay for her TV, but she does not have the strength to push the buttons. She can’t find the red button to call the nurse either. She tells me that last night, nurses took her down to a dungeon where she lay awake in terror. Now she wonders why they have left a black, scotch terrier in the corner of her room. Despite the fact that I gave the doctor a detailed print out of all her medications, doses and times, no one bothered to give her the pill that prevents such hallucinations and fear.

My mother is in the hospital because unrelenting nausea has left her unable to eat or drink. The dementia comes from her Parkinsons, or from the medications that help her to walk. Or both.

Eventually I have to go home. My son, a high school junior, is in the midst of getting ready for midterm exams. Did he really need to go get a haircut today? I imagine college admission officers looking over his shoulder, frowning. He needs a motherly nudge. He wants me to look over his essay on Macbeth. The nudge is probably more my need than his. And I need to make phone calls, cancel a few meetings, ask our seminary intern to take over some other hospital visits.

I tell my mother that I have to leave now. She’s trying to hold back tears and tells me how afraid she is of being alone. The tuna fish sandwich that she couldn’t eat is now making me feel sick.  Or maybe it’s sandwich generation guilt, rising like bile. I’m reading the opening paragraph of “How Macbeth Lost Himself” when the phone rings. It’s my mother calling to tell me that they have taken all the furniture out of her room and she has no bed.

And so we come, to join the disciples on their trip up the mountain with Jesus. They must be exhausted by the non-stop demands of the crowds seeking the attention of Jesus. Soon they are sent off with power and authority into the same needy crowds to cure, proclaim and heal. They have an enviable run of success and return to tell Jesus all about it. But when he takes them to “withdraw privately” for a well-earned rest, they are interrupted by more crowds and the work of ministry continues. It’s been a long day and enough is enough. The weary disciples beg Jesus to send the crowd away. But we know what happens next– fish sandwiches for five thousand, or more like 15,000, counting the women and children.

When they finally do get a day off, it doesn’t feel much like a vacation with Jesus telling them about his upcoming suffering, “great suffering” actually, rejection, death (treatment they might expect as well) and on the third day, rising. I don’t blame them for missing the rising part. When you think you’re heading for the dungeon, anxiety and panic tend to block out everything else.

Eight days later, they are still reeling, in no shape for mountain climbing, even if it is to pray. Luke is the only one who mentions prayer as the reason for their mountain ascent. Why can’t they just pray where they are? But if I am honest, some days, many days, the attempt to pray is a steep, uphill climb on weary legs. And if I make it, it’s only thanks to the company I keep– Jesus, Peter, James and John– Jesus and the communion of saints, past and present.

Our fellow travelers make it up, but Jesus appears to be doing all the praying.  His followers can hardly keep their eyes open, another detail unique to Luke’s account, connecting the mountain of transfiguration and the Mount of Olives, unlikely twin sites of glory’s face and backside. But here, sleep does not overcome the three. They are startled by a flash of radiance. Jesus, who must have reached the summit as sweaty and dusty as they did, now shines with the light of heaven itself. The rough fabric of his clothing shimmers like a swath of sunstruck water. The disciples behold the glory of God. They see two men as well. Only Luke mentions the two men, as he likewise mentions two men in dazzling clothes at the tomb– messengers of glory at the brink of death.

Here the two men are introduced as Moses and Elijah: They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.  The word translated as “departure,” comes from the Greek word for exodus, referring not only to the trip down the mountain and into Jerusalem, but to Jesus’ death. Moses’ presence makes the connection unavoidable; now Jesus will accomplish a second exodus, leading people safely through the waters of death, even as his own flesh is parted in waves of pain on the cross. But this talk of exodus and death in the midst of  transfiguration is lost on the disciples with sleepers and stardust in their eyes.

Peter gives voice to the confusion of his stunned companions, suggesting that they arrange to stay up on the mountain top. Unlike Peter, I have found the mountain top of this text a less comfortable place, perhaps because, unlike Peter, I have not been there. Each year, when this story comes up, I am eager to move away from mountain top to more familiar terrain. I feel more at home when they get down to the needy crowd. More at home with the parent who is desperate for the welfare of their child. More at home beside the disciples who now are powerless to effect a cure.

All the transfigurations I’ve seen, and I have been blessed to see them, have been down below. There, I have seen lives transfigured, demons cast out, children raised up. These are the transformations for which we work and pray and hope, the transfigurations that brighten our days with wonder and joy. But there are other days. We all have them.

This year, I’m less eager to rush down to the bottom of the hill. I’d like to linger in the story up on the mountain. I’d like to listen to the voice that interrupts Peter and brings balm in the midst of fear: “Listen to him,” we are told. Listen for dear life. Listen to words of forgiveness, mercy, promises of paradise, words from the cross. Listen without ceasing, on the edge of glory and the brink of death. I beg you to look at my son, a father cries out, echoing another voice: Here is my only begotten son with whom I am well pleased, listen to him. Listen on this hill and on another where darkness closed in.

When cures and healing are beyond our powers, when the shine on a loved one’s face comes from tears in the florescent lights of intensive care, or a sheen of sweat and blood, when the third day seems far off, on such days, how good it is to be here, in this story, listening to the voice that urges us to listen and to follow on, up or down, for the Word shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Glory be.   (2007)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Better than Football

Image
I got a call this week from a celebrity football player whose name I do not remember. It was a recorded call and the football player wanted to tell me about a life-changing new movie being released later this month called “Son of God.” He felt the need to tell me that Jesus is even better than football and he wanted me to urge my congregation to go see this movie. He also suggested that I order group tickets for the church. I won’t be doing either one. The more “powerful and inspiring” this movie turns out to be, the more dangerous it is because in this movie, as in every Jesus movie I have ever seen, Jesus is White. 

Is that such a big deal? Can’t we enjoy the film and all it’s strengths while knowing that Jesus was not White? Recently, in our Sunday School, one child pointed to another saying that “I’m Brown and you’re Black.” This was not just a factual comment; there was a belief on the part of the first child that being lighter-skinned was better. Both children were Latino immigrants and they were not born with this idea. The teacher decided to read a book about God being a God of all colors. “But God is White!” the children said. These children, in a Spanish language class where none of the children happened to be White, were certain that God is White. 

Children are concrete thinkers. Young children do not say, “This is how this artist draws Jesus. This is how this film-maker depicts Jesus. Jesus was born in the Middle East and while we don’t know exactly what he looked like we do know that he wasn’t White.” If children observe in every movie and picture that Jesus is White, then Jesus is White. And if Jesus is the Son of God, then God is probably White too. Like it or not,  we are communicating to children that a White identity is God-like and that a non-White identity is inferior. We are teaching children that God and church are aligned with White supremacy.

Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”  I am going to tear my eyes away from this kind of movie and cut off my support. Then, I’m going to take the money it costs to see the movie and donate it to Crossroads anti- racism organizing and training which does a lot of great work in churches. 

http://crossroadsantiracism.org 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angelus

photo-371

I spent the past week basking in Benedictine hospitality and writing at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. Snow falling steadily outside the windows added to silence within. The bells ring six times a day to call the monks and guests to common prayer. And then there was Dexter waiting for me on my Iphone. I went to the monastery to get away from distractions and to be able to focus on writing and mostly that is what I did, but I was also on vacation and I took several Dexter breaks. Each day. I have no explanation as to why I would find the escapades of a serial killer to be relaxing and entertaining. I felt guilty to be watching Dexter slicing and dicing his victims in such a sacred space, but guilt did not deter me. A group of Episcopalian priests were also at the monastery for a retreat on the art of hearing confessions. I shared mealtime with them but I did not mention Dexter.

In spite of the furtive breaks on my Iphone, I did get a lot of writing done and I did follow the bells to prayer. I was particularly drawn to the tradition of the Angelus, named for the angel Gabriel. The Angelus bells ring three times a day– morning, noon and evening, inviting a three-fold meditation on the incarnation. Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you…Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to Your Word…And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

The church I serve has bells, but the architect has warned us not to use them due to rotting wood. He feels that one more tug and the whole apparatus will come crashing down on the ringer’s head, so our bells remain quiet for now. At times, we have prayers with chant and silence like at the monastery, Our meditative Taize worship draws a small group looking for a respite from the fast, loud pace of our beloved city and sometimes the less dear parts of our inner lives. I announce that all phones should be turned off.

 There is one other problem that we cannot turn off and that is our doorbell. We call it the doorbell, but it is actually a buzzer. The last time we had Taize prayer was on Wednesdays during Lent. We sat among the votive lights, breathing in the silence until someone began to stab at the buzzer over and over and over.  Finally, it ended only to happen again, and then again. Stab! Stab! Stab!  What an unwelcome assault on our quiet time!

Then I remembered that Wednesday is the night that volunteers prepare a special dinner for our young shelter residents and the meals are served an hour earlier than usual. The youth were ringing the doorbell, an intentionally loud buzzer so that it can be heard anywhere in the building, something it has in common with the monastery bells. Some medieval bells are inscribed with the opening words of the angelus prayer: Ave Maria. Gratia plena. Dominus tecum— “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”

Down in the basement, volunteers have spread out tablecloths and someone is lighting candles. One by one, the young people come to the door and the buzzer rings. The door opens. Hail, DeeDee. Hail, Jayson. Hail, Tina. The room breathes grace. The Word has become flesh and the meal is ready. 

Most angelus bells do not sound like our buzzer, but we make do with what is given to us. I miss the monastery silence, but I’m glad to be back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pizza and Pigeons at the Presentation of our Lord

How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts!  Psalm 84:1

One by one, and in twos and threes they come—young and mostly Mexican– seeking a safe space to share their stories of worker abuse out of earshot of their employers. Our church basement has become their sanctuary of choice on Friday mornings.  There is Carlos who worked 65 hours a week delivering pizza for Dominos, but was paid for only 45 of those hours; and Anatole who worked from 10am to 8pm one Saturday while his pay stub noted just five hours. Many find themselves doing inside work as well— sweeping, washing and unloading supplies, for which they receive no bump in a delivery wage intended to be subsidized by tips. This counts as business as usual at more than one Dominos franchise.

Besides commiserating with one another, the workers meet with labor organizers and lawyers to figure out ways to improve their plight. When Carlos dared to ask his boss for the back pay that was rightly owed, he was fired on the spot. This was not an encouraging sign for Anatole whose children live in Burkina Faso, a small West African nation with one of the world’s lowest per capita incomes. I have to admit, that when I’ve ordered pizza for my family, and rummaged around for a tip, I did not consider that children in Burkina Faso were waiting to see how much I might come up with.

Upstairs in our other sanctuary we are preparing for Sunday’s celebration of the Presentation of Jesus that took place according to the Jewish law that required a firstborn male child to be presented at the temple with an animal sacrifice. This would usually be a lamb and a pigeon, but if a family was too poor for a lamb, another pigeon could be substituted.  Jesus came from a two-pigeon family. The law was put on the books to counter the cultural practice of actually sacrificing firstborn baby boys. The idea seemed to be that if you sacrificed your firstborn, this would somehow appease any greedy, murderous powers in the universe and the rest of your children would have a better chance of survival. There are many denunciations against this practice in the Bible and then came the law—sacrifice an animal instead of a child. This bloody business may all seem rather gruesome to us, but the two-pigeon option meant that even the poorest babies were entitled to the same protection afforded the more affluent–something the fathers and uncles in our basement sanctuary did not have for their children, but they were determined to get it.

Our congregation had already participated in a Sweatshop Free campaign that demanded fair labor practices in local restaurants but taking on a commercial giant was something else. Carlos and Anatole filed a lawsuit against Dominos and were then joined by dozens of other workers who deliver pizzas around our city. When they asked the church to support them and sign-on to a boycott, there was no hesitation. I knew we were on to something when I got a letter from the Dominos corporate headquarters threatening to sue me and another local pastor if we continued to voice our public support of a boycott.  Not to belittle myself and my colleague, but just how much influence do they think we have? I can’t get the youth in our shelter to stop eating so much bacon much less direct the eating habits of enough New Yorkers to make a serious dent in Dominos’ billion dollar bottom-line.

In some quarters, the Presentation of our Lord (February 2) is also Candlemas, a day for blessing candles to be used throughout the year. This comes from an ancient ritual born at the crux of winter. February 2 falls right at the turning point between the darkest day of the year and the spring equinox.  We don’t celebrate Candlemas in my church but the smile on Carlos’ face as he stood in my office last Friday was its own glorious turning point. After three years, the workers had just won a $1.3 million dollar settlement from Dominos for 63 deliverymen who will receive between $61,000 and $400 each. Enough for number of celebratory lambs.

On Sunday, we celebrated the Presentation of our Lord who was carried to the temple when he was six-weeks old. There, Jesus was taken into the arms of old Simeon and older Anna and proclaimed to be a light for all nations. We welcomed three-week old Lucas bundled against the cold on his first trip to church with his radiant, happy-tired mothers. Lucas was instantly surrounded, lighting up the faces of young and old alike. And we remembered all the two-pigeon families whose children deserve no less.

Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young, by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God. Psalm 84:3