Sunday, September 6, 2015

Sermon: Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday September 6, 2015

In today’s gospel, Jesus does something that troubles me, but it’s probably not what you think.

Here’s the offending passage:
They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 
Not what you thought, was it? Let me explain to you why this is a problematic passage for me.

My first career was in Deaf Education and I received my degree in Educational Interpreting from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, NTID.  While there, I got to meet many people who identified as culturally Deaf, and who objected to the identification of deafness as a disability. They looked at developments such as cochlear implants as a way of pathologizing deafness, when many are in fact proud of their history, language, culture, and traditions.

So when I hit this reading, I instantly see it through that lens. And then, when you see it that way, there are other parts that make it problematic:
  1. The deaf person doesn’t seem to have a say in what happens to him. He is brought by others.
  2. Who is this “they”? Are they close friends who know what the person wants? Are they the disciples, in which case, why are they bringing him?
  3. What is the motivation? Is it to bring healing and restoration? Is it to make the community more comfortable? And does this motivation matter, in light of what the deaf man actually wants?
  4. “They” were astounded – but how did the formerly deaf man feel about it? Though the story says “he spoke plainly,” we never actually hear his words.

Then there’s the problem of suddenly being able to hear. When you grow up being able to hear, the sense of hearing has a powerful ability to filter out background noises. When I grew up in Alameda, I was under the flight path of the Oakland airport, but I never noticed the airplanes until someone was visiting and pointed out how loud they were. Similarly, one of the things that’s difficult for people who get fitted with hearing aids is suddenly they hear everything; they can’t filter out the background noises.

So when someone who has been deaf can suddenly hear, it’s not like sounds automatically make sense. 

For me,  the story ends on a false positive note, where we never actually hear the man say anything, and instead, this mysterious “they” announce that  Jesus “even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak,” rather than say, “he has helped us to be reconciled with our friend and brother.”


On Tuesday, the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies issued a letter calling on Episcopal congregations to participate in "Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday" this Sunday.

On the plus side, this was requested by African American leadership of the AME church.  As AME Bishop Reginald T. Jackson writes, "Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking. This is an effort which the faith community must lead, and be the conscience of the nation. We will call upon every church, temple, mosque and faith communion to make their worship service on this Sunday a time to confess and repent for the sin and evil of racism, this includes ignoring, tolerating and accepting racism, and to make a commitment to end racism by the example of our lives and actions." I am more than happy to honor this call.

On the other hand, if we are truly committed to ending racism, this cannot happen on 5 days notice, with a guest preacher, on a holiday weekend. 

It seems to me that for many of us, racism has become a background noise we’ve learned to filter out. One of the powerful changes in this past year is that many of us have finally heard the constant background noise of racism as we see videos of police brutality and learn the names of those who have died in police custudy.

As I looked at the liturgical material offered for this Sunday, I was struck by the first line of a “Litany for those who aren’t ready for healing,” from the ELCA
“Let us not rush to the language of healing, before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound.” 
Understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound requires listening: re-training our hearing to hear the things we’ve learned to screen out.

It requires not presuming we know what the injury is: what we may presume to be pathology may instead be celebrated as culture, and what we presume to be health may instead be a coping mechanism.

It requires time and commitment: not just this sermon, this confession, this Sunday, but an ongoing commitment to understanding.

May those who have ears to hear, truly listen.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Review: Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I hated this book. Hated. And I'm still not sure why my reaction is so strong and so visceral. I've waited a few days to see if I could better articulate my feelings, and I can't.

The book started off fairly strongly, but the last third was basically a screed in dialogue form between cardboard-thin characters who were never more than superficial in their views.

I'd say this book needed an editor, except that this book HAD an editor: the one that said, "Don't publish this book; the kernel of what you are trying to do lies in another place;" the one that got us "To Kill a Mockingbird."

As for how Atticus has changed/is racist/was always racist, I appreciate Lance Mannion's insights on the matter in his post about both books [], and fiction in general:

"It will be a shame, though, if thousands of adults who love and cherish To Kill a Mockingbird do have it ruined for them by having Go Set a Watchman rewrite it for them and they now see it as merely a prequel to the real story, the one in which the truth can finally be revealed. And going by the online discussion, there are a lot of people who already think that Go Set A Watchman is the true or, at any rate, the truer story and its Atticus is the real Atticus.

"As if there is a “real” Atticus.

"But the basis for thinking Watchman's the real or more realistic Atticus seems to be that in reality there were more racists in that time and place than there were white liberal heroes and that Go Set A Watchman is told from the adult Scout's point of view and as an adult she is ready to face and reveal the whole truth about her father.

"As if To Kill a Mockingbird had been written by a nine year old.

"As if adults are better at perceiving and handling the truth."


View all my reviews

Friday, April 17, 2015

World In Prayer, April 17

It was my week to write the World In Prayer prayers. I started by looking at the lectionary, before even looking at the news. I thought I was going to focus on the gospel reading about the resurrection appearance, but the line that leapt out at me was from the Psalm, "Many are saying, 'Oh that we might see better times!'" followed up by a beautiful request. As you'll see, that seemed like a good refrain. At the same time, I wanted to note resurrection as an ongoing revelation of the Easter season.  Moving from bad news to signs of hope was another way of lifting up my own countenance to see resurrection at work in the world. 

Here they are:
Many are saying, "Oh, that we might see better times!" *
Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.
                                                                                    Psalm 4:6

In this season of resurrection, lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O Lord, that we may see your risen Son, Jesus Christ, who walks with us, even in our confusion and grief.

We pray for all whose lives have been affected by the Holocaust as the world bears witness on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.

We pray for all migrants who have fled North Africa attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, remembering especially those who have drowned, including the 400 who have died this week alone.

Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.

We pray for Yemen, where Al-Qaeda of the Arab Peninsula has taken over a major airport in Mukalla.

Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.

We pray for the United States where a history of slavery, racism, and oppression continues to reveal itself through deadly violence towards African Americans.

Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.

We pray for Colombia where rebels from Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia broke a recent cease-fire, killing 11 soldiers, and where aerial bombings are set to resume.

Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.

We give thanks for the 5,000 people in Durban, South Africa who marched to protest a spate of recent xenophobic attacks.

Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.

We give thanks for signs of peace between the U.S. and Cuba after more than 50 years of hostility.

Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.

We give thanks for all who work for peace, for reconciliation, for restoration, for healing, for justice, and for hope.

Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.

Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD. In our homes. In our families. In our communities. In our countries. And in our world. Amen.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

I'm sorry, Bishop Kemper!

Yesterday was my final contest in Lent Madness, as Bishop Kemper lost in the second round to the very worthy Bernard Mizeki.

I feel terrible, though. Not because Kemper lost, but because I feel so many people got the wrong idea about him from what I wrote.

The second round is Quirks and Quotes, and what could be quirkier than this:
According to his biographer, “He did not care for Shakespeare, and abhorred Byron.” He did, however, enjoy the occasional novel (“particularly, it is remembered, Judge Haliburton’s ‘Sam Slick’”) and “let his children read Scott’s romances, but not too many of them at a time, fearing lest they should acquire a taste for fiction.”
And this:
Bishop Kemper “rose early, at five o’clock in summer and six in winter, and attributed his established health in large measure to his habitual morning bath in cold water, followed by the use of the flesh brush.”
Quirky, right?

But, oh, the comments! People who could never vote for someone who didn't care for Shakespeare or censored his children's reading. Who found Kemper cold, joyless, and stiff. Who called him "small-minded."

One person commented, "Voted mostly against Kemper–cold showers and dislike of Shakespeare hardly stacks up against an African martyr who comes complete with a festival where people dance for two days." Another wrote, "He sounds like a dedicated pastor of the far more austere sort. I wonder what inspired others about him–largely the sheer force of his strength of character?"

And that's where I feel I completely let Jackson Kemper down, because I've gotten to know him well in my research and what comes shining through is his warmth, kindness, and generosity.

Here's a quote from his biographer that didn't make it into the write-ups:
"He was in his element when making a round of parish visits, which he found to be an easy means of imparting religious instruction, and his tenderness and personal kindness in times of trouble, sickness, or death endeared him deeply to his people. He thoroughly enjoyed simple social visiting, and all his life was very particular about calling on strangers and returning calls. He was a generous giver to every good cause. He was exceedingly restrained in criticism of others. He had modest views of his powers and attainments, and was never satisfied with them but ever strove to improve himself. He was by no means lacking in humor of a gay and gentle kind. One of his most attractive qualities, which he never lost, was a certain boyish lightheartedness and zest for living."
That's what inspired people.

This year, when we were given the list of Lent Madness contestants to choose from, I didn't have any particular favorites and just asked for a random assortment. I received Dorcas, John Keble, and Jackson Kemper, and knew little of any of them. It's Jackson Kemper that most won my heart and affection in the course of this Lent Madness. I'm just so terribly sorry that I didn't do more to convey that this amazing man not only did a tremendous amount for the church, but did it with love.

It's been so much fun being part of Lent Madness. Thanks to Melodie Woerman of the Diocese of Kansas, Don Compier, Dean of the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry, and the fabulous folks who ran the Action Jackson Kemper Facebook page. Kemper will always have a Golden Halo in my book.

Kemper Fi!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Lenten disciplines in a time of turmoil

Yesterday, I celebrated at a parish that's going through a rough patch. I was planning to preach on the Transfiguration and psychedelic drugs, but I ended up giving them this list of Lenten disciplines instead. I think they might be more generally useful, and so I'm sharing them here. Please know that this list is not in any way proscriptive. If it is helpful, then use it, and if not, not. These are just some thoughts I’ve had in the past couple of days that might be useful for groups or individuals, depending on what's going on for them. Take what you need and leave the rest.

5 things to give up 
  1. Give up ascribing motives. I find that this is incredibly difficult because what we each want to know is why. Why did this happen? And that’s why it’s so tempting to try to figure out people’s motivations. It gives meaning to the story that we’re currently confused about. But for right now, all we can really determine is what did or did not happen, what was or was not done. Ascribing motives leads us to be suspect of the positive behaviors of those we disagree with (“I wonder what s/he’s really trying to get from me”), or to excuse the negative behaviors of those in our camp (“but s/he didn’t mean it”). 
  2. Give up figuring out what you or anyone else should have done or could have done. It didn’t happen. For whatever reason, whatever it is you think should have happened didn’t happen. There is no use trying to go back because whatever it is that happened is in the past. Yes, we can learn from this. But now, in the midst of the crisis, is not the best time. Let it go. Forgive yourself and others. 
  3. Give up the need to be right. Every single person is going to have a perspective on what is going on, based on personal experience, history, and the information s/he possesses. That perspective is neither more nor less right than your own. When we give up the need to be right, it helps us to listen, to recognize that this person’s perspective is valid without needing to answer, without needing to prove, without it being a springboard to our own response. 
  4. Give up anticipating the future. We don’t know what the future will hold. We don’t know what new development may appear even as soon as tomorrow. When we anticipate the future, it closes us off to other possible futures that the Holy Spirit may want to lead us into – the possibility that God, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. 
  5. Give up trying to fix or save. It’s such a temptation to leap in with grand gestures and solutions to everything. But at this point, fixing or saving is more about trying to reach an anticipated future or trying to correct the past. 

5 things to take on

That’s not to say that we should sit back and do nothing. There are things we can do, things we can take on for Lent. They may seem simple, but I believe they are the actions that will bring healing, trust, and community.

  1. Take on small kindnesses. One thing I learned early on in my ministry was that there was a much better chance I could be there for people when they were in the middle of a crisis if I was there for people in all of the small, day to day things. One percent of the time, they needed me to show up when something went really wrong. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they just needed me to answer their friggin’ email. What are the small kindnesses we can do to care for one another? The accretion of these small gestures, day after day, are what is going to make the difference in the long run, building the foundation of trust, support, and hope as you work together. 
  2. Take on time to pause and reflect. In the midst of temptation to do something to make things better, sometimes the best thing to do is to sit quietly, look around, and see where you are. And that may mean feeling a range of feelings: sorrow, anger, relief, grief, guilt, confusion... But I believe that it is in sitting there and feeling the feelings that the healing hand of God is allowed to enter. It’s when we show God our wounds that we are able to be healed. And that happens when we take time to actually find the parts that hurt. 
  3. Take on smiling at each other. This sounds very small, but I think there’s something important that happens when we simply look at one another and smile. Please note that I’m not saying, “Keep on smilin’!” What I’m trying to get at here is staying connected with one another with hope. You don’t need to agree about anything to acknowledge another person’s humanity and connection to you. 
  4. Take on breathing. It’s amazing how important this is and how much it helps. About a week ago, I got a “Wellness Newsletter” from our HR department. I was stressed and anxious about a ton of things I needed to do and said to myself, “I don’t have time for this ‘Wellness’ crap!” But I looked at it, and on the list of suggestions of things to do, it said, “Breathe 3 times.” Well, I figured I had time to do that. So I breathed 3 times. And then, because it felt so good, I breathed a fourth time. And I was thrown by how much difference this small thing made in how I felt about the day. So when the anxiety comes up, breathe three times. Maybe four. 
  5. Take on the mantra, “All will be well.” Julian of Norwich was a 14th Century anchoress and mystic who lived through the plague that wiped out 1/3 of the population of Europe. In the midst of this and in the midst of her own suffering, she received this word: “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things shall all be very well.” It may be helpful to remember that in the grand scheme of things, this is all small potatoes. As you breathe, remind yourself that all will be well, and all will be well, and all things will all be well. God loves you. God will always love you. God will always be with you, no matter what. And all manner of things shall all be very well.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

World In Prayer, February 13

It was my week to write the World in Prayer prayers. The top news stories were the peace accord hammered out in Ukraine, and the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, NC. But the story that struck me was that of a group of 6 prison inmates in Taiwan who had taken some prison guards hostage and, after a 14-hour stand-off, committed suicide. 

These were not nice people, it sounds like. And yet I felt very called to pray for them. Which then moved me to pray for other people that I would much rather not pray for. And I was reminded of the great commandments, and of Jesus' words, "I was in prison and you visited me," and "Whatever you do for the least of these, you have done for me." And that led me to these prayers.

As we prepare ourselves for the holy season of Lent, let us reflect in prayer on the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: that when we love the least of these, we love you, Lord.

Help us to love the least of these in prison. We pray for prisoners throughout the world. We pray that they may receive justice, that those who are innocent may be freed and those who are guilty may be restored and reconciled. We pray especially this week for Taiwan where 6 inmates held several guards hostage before committing suicide.

Help us to love the least of these who are refugees. We pray for the souls of the 300 migrants who drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. We pray too for all those who tried to rescue them, as they have done so many times over the past months and years, and help them deal with the grief and horror of the tragedy. We pray for the children from Guatemala, El Salvador, and elsewhere, held in family detention camps in New Mexico, USA. We pray for all those who have been displaced from their homes.

Help us to love the least of those who seek peace. We give thanks for the ceasefire announced in Ukraine and pray that it may hold. We pray for Syria, Burkina Faso, Iraq, Afghanistan, and for countries affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, especially Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger.

Help us to love the least of those of all faiths and tribes. We pray for Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad and her sister Razan who were killed this week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA by their neighbor.

Help us, O Lord, to love our neighbors as You have commanded us to do. Help us to see in them the image of the living God who has come to dwell with us. And may we be transformed when we see You before us in the face of the least of these.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

How to get Fred Rogers a spot on the Lent Madness bracket

Hello, Lent Madness global reading public! For reasons known mostly to Scott Gunn, for the past several years I've had the pleasure of being a so-called Celebrity Blogger for Lent Madness. Though I admit the title earns me nothing but mockery and eye-rolling here at home.

As a long-time follower of Lent Madness, I've seen a yearly tradition arise of petitioning the Supreme
Executive Committee to put various people on the bracket, notably Fred Rogers. The problem is that, though the SEC would love to put more people on the bracket, they have established as a baseline that the contestants of Lent Madness are limited to the people who are recognized as saints in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA). Reasonably enough.

But there is hope, Fred Rogers supporters! The liturgical calendar and our church's manner of recognizing people of faith is constantly evolving. What's more, there are definitely ways in which mere mortals such as ourselves can affect this change. I am firmly convinced that we can take steps this month to get Fred Rogers on the radar, so to speak.

Namely: Create a local commemoration of Fred Rogers for your faith community on or near the date he died, February 27!

One of the criteria given for inclusion in the Episcopal Church's calendar is local observance. I quote from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music's blog post from one year ago:
Criterion 5  Local Observance: Similarly, it should normatively be the case that significant remembrance of a particular person already exists within the Church at the local and regional levels before that person is included in the Church’s larger story.
I'm not saying the official recognition will happen this year. "Local and regional commemoration normally occurs for many years prior to national recognition," according to Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Still...if we really want Fred Rogers as part of our national collection of Holy Women and Holy Men (and in Lent Madness), it's great to take that first step.

Oh, and before you party-poopers step in and say, "A person needs to be dead for 50 years before we recognize him," I point you to last year's Lent Madness finalist Harriet Bedell who died in 1969. So unless I suddenly turned 50 without my noticing it, my basic math skills would suggest that Bedell was placed on the calendar well before her required 50 were up.

And whether or not Fred Rogers ever makes it on the bracket or in our church's official commemorations, the truth is, we will still have him as a model of gentleness and compassion. And I'm sure Mr. Rogers doesn't care about a golden halo.