When you know it’s all wrong

Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever. 12 For evils have encompassed me without number; my iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails me. 13 Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me; O LORD, make haste to help me. 14 Let all those be put to shame and confusion who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt. 15 Let those be appalled because of their shame who say to me, “Aha, Aha!” 16 But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the LORD!” 17 As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God. Psalm 40:11-17

I just watched eyewitness video of Alton Sterling’s death at the hand of a Baton Rouge policeman. It is tough to watch, and one can feel the pump of adrenaline in the veins of all involved: Alton, the two policemen wrestling with him and the people recording the scene in the front seat of their car from the dashboard; even I, the observer, is on alert with a quickened pulse. With the sound of a gunshot, that flood of adrenaline gets replaced by that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when you know this situation- this black man’s story, will have the same ending as it did in South Carolina, Baltimore, Texas, Florida, Fergusson, etc. and you close your eyes and pray.

As a person who is involved in her community, I am a mix of feelings and emotions. I work with the police here in my community. They commit themselves to creating open communication and having community dialogues around policing and police behavior at traffic stops. They listen to the complaints of the people and encourage folks to use a formal system that gets reviewed by the police chief, who personally attends these community roundtables. They also work with the faith community in our town, a very diverse group, both ethnically and theologically.

But I also spend Friday nights with 140 teenagers at the local YMCA, who come to play basketball and escape their homes and neighborhoods for the evening. I look at those brown and white faces and I fear that some of them may disappear forever in one fatal, forever moment, and I am scared for those children- whose bodies are adult-like but whose minds are still young and developing. And that feeling turns my stomach with nausea and dread. It is the feeling of every parent with a brown skinned child. Today, we know it’s the shared feeling of brown skinned children who fear losing their parents, like the children of Alton Sterling have.

I am a white, heterosexual woman with an advanced educational background. I don’t live in a mansion, but I might as well; because privilege pervades my speech, appearance and experience. I do not know the fear of police, just as I don’t know the fear of being targeted because I am gay. There are so many things I will never understand because I have never lived in that skin. Poverty, perhaps, but death by stereotype? No.

Psalm 40 resonates not only as a psalm of lament but praise to God. It speaks frankly of those, “who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt.” I didn’t write about Orlando, because I was hollowed out with grief and bitterness that hate would take lives: in the moment with a gun and after with unclaimed bodies. But I couldn’t stay silent anymore.

I am angry that we can’t seem to stop using skin color to dictate unspoken policy and behavior. I am frightened for people who are just like me, with kids and families that they love, but who walk this world aware that each breath may be their last breath if circumstances go sideways. I want to know how to stop it. As the psalmist says, evil encompasses me all around, and I want to eradicate it. I just don’t know how.

Listen to those in fear. Ask what can be done. Use your power to change things for the better. We are all children of God and we all deserve equality in every aspect of our lives: in cars, in front of convenience stores, in parks, in all neighborhoods, in our churches, in our dance clubs. Teach your children that this world is diverse, not divergent, and each person makes their own choice regardless of their skin color. Don’t assume you know someone else’s story before they share it. Do justice- with calls to congress people, letters, supportive behaviors.

Pray (and Praise) to God for change.

The Green (and greedy) Side of the Prison System

Once upon a time, you disobeyed the law and you were given a punishment. If the crime was severe, you went to jail. Once you completed your sentence you were released and the rest was up to you. (I probably should have added the fact that all of the above is applicable to you if you were Caucasian, if not, the tale has a completely different- if not harrowing- path from accusation to imprisonment or death.) Those days, when one’s punishment was fair, are ancient history; because in today’s society the accused enters an intricate system of monetary interests from the moment they are booked: a system of interwoven special benefits for private companies that ensures that sentences will not only be guaranteed but long, and basic services will be minimal at best.

Let’s begin with some statistics: according to an AFL-CIO article entitled, “Prisons and Profits: The Big Business Behind Mass Incarceration,” a 2008 study from the Pew Center on the States reports that one out of every 106 white males ages 18 or older is incarcerated, one out of every 36 Hispanic males ages 18 or older is incarcerated and one in every 15 black males ages 18 or older is incarcerated. In many of the largest cities in the United States, more than half of young black men are either in the correctional population or released but now stigmatized with a criminal record.1

Private companies that run prisons contract that they will run at full capacity by requiring that the government keep them 90-100% filled. They also lobby for stricter laws that increase minimal time limits for nonviolent or minor crimes, as well as lifetime sentences that capitalize on “three strike” offenders. Their eye has turned to their new target: undocumented immigrants. They are now lobbying for harsher prison penalties for undocumented immigrants.

You may be thinking that this doesn’t seem too bad, despite the clear minority prejudice. After all, these individuals committed a crime, so what’s the big deal? Here’s the problem: the combined effect of lobbying for tougher legislation (that creates a need for more prison space) and “bed guarantees” is that it leaves a serious wake- everything from juvenile detention to parole and probation services fall within this for-profit margin. The need to increase profits routinely leads to the minimizations of services like health care for inmates, as well as overcrowding and poorly monitored facilities can allow for unethical treatment of prisoners to go unchecked.

Once a prisoner completes his/her time, they can look forward to ongoing court costs, unemployment (which means court costs go unpaid and they can possibly be re-jailed), and- if their family support system lives in government subsidized housing- no place to live.

No one is purporting that guilty people shouldn’t do penance for their crimes. However, with such rampant greed, the lines between guilt and innocence fall solidly on the one creating the legislation. Likewise, the penance should fit the crime, not fill a bed for as long as possible.

Jesus didn’t approve of the money changers in the Temple who profited off the children of God who came to rectify themselves before their creator; likewise, there is a solid chance this widespread abuse of a population made up almost solely of minorities and the poor would register an equally explosive response from him. The longer we remain silent, the greater the chance that the situation will only get worse. As people of privilege, you have a very powerful tool at your disposal- the right to vote. Learn more about your local politicians before you submit your vote. It’s not just a financial problem, it’s a human rights problem. The more we damage our society with unfair rulings and an endless spirals of debt without the ability to return to productive citizen status, we unravel the foundation of the American Dream- that one can rise above their circumstances, right their wrongs and live a happy and fulfilled life.

To learn more:

https://www.aclu.org/banking-bondage-private-prisons-and-mass-incarceration

  1. http://www.aflcio.org/About/Exec-Council/Conventions/2013/Resolutions-and-Amendments/Resolution-17-Prisons-and-Profits-The-Big-Business-Behind-Mass-Incarceration

 

 

The one who stays behind

Hear, O women, the word of the LORD, and let your ears receive the word of his mouth; teach to your daughters a dirge, and each to her neighbor a lament. “Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces, to cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares.”                Jeremiah 9:20-21

My Godly community is reeling. We have lost one of our own, and we have lost her quickly and with hardly a warning. Her children feel like they belong to us, and therefore we ache with deep grief as we contemplate their future, one in which they will always think of their mother in the past tense.

When you spend hours in a hospital waiting room, you have plenty of time to think. Amidst the fervent prayer, I often offered laments to God: for her bodily suffering, for the unfair element of this great woman’s early departure from this world, and for God’s poor choice in taking her. You see, I do not hold on so closely to this life. Within it I move and love and work, but I do not cling to it tightly. My hope is in a grander life beyond this world, where love reigns and the pettiness of greed and hate do not exist. This earthly home is temporary for me. So, I railed a bit against God. I should be the one winging my way to my Savior. It shouldn’t have been her, who has a young child to raise and a grandbaby to cuddle. She was much better a follower of Jesus than I, having mastered the art of forgiveness, patience, compassion and love. And so I wrestle with guilt; because she, the same age as I, is gone and I remain behind. I know I am not alone, as over the years I have heard many elderly people contemplate why they stayed and someone they loved didn’t.

We do not get to choose who will be plucked from the field and who will remain. We do not get to make rational arguments for the choosing of one to go ahead while we linger back. Life cycles end and we scramble to collect the broken pieces of our hearts and lives and find a way to create a life that honors the people we lose.

Being the one who stays behind means that one is tasked with responsibility. Your time is a gift, a precious one that calls for attention and intention. How can you live into such an invaluable thing as an opportunity to hug your grandchildren and hold them on your lap? How have you centered your life in such a way that your children will rest easy in time well spent and love freely exchanged? Being the one who stays behind means learning a lesson from those who go on ahead.

Loving God, who we rarely understand, teach us how to live even as we grieve those who live no longer. Hold us gently as we lift our anger to you when we disagree with the ways of this world. Draw us in and lift our eyes to you. Amen.

 

Locked up for life

You are jaillooking at things as they are outwardly. If anyone is confident in himself that he is Christ’s, let him consider this again within himself, that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we. For even if I should boast somewhat further about our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I shall not be put to shame,   2 Corinthians 10:7-8

We humans have a habit of assumption. We assume that the moral standards our parents and caregivers instilled and surrounded us with are solid. While they vary from household to household- what kind of work or benefit is acceptable and what is unacceptable, we are usually sure our teachings were right. When we fall short, we feel it-like the prodigal son and the moment he really felt his moral failings as measured by his work tending the pigs and choosing uncleanly work. Yet, there are assumptions of others we make that are universal: if you landed in jail, you were there because you made a wrong choice or broke a law. Rarely do we ask the deeper questions, such as “Does the punishment fit the crime?” or “Have we created a system that favors one group of people over another?” Even worse, have we considered that perhaps we have perpetuated a criminal justice system that is anything but just to the poor, the very people Christ calls us to protect and lift up?

A few months ago, two gentlemen from our town spoke at our Sunday School. They are ‘returning citizens,’ a term to denote their re-entry into society following incarceration. Both served time for drug possession and intent to distribute. Both have worked diligently to restructure and change their lives. They talked about their past and their present and then challenged us to learn more about a topic called Mass Incarceration.

Mass Incarceration is a term that defines this country’s extremely disproportionate number of prisoners that are people of color. Raised in poor neighborhoods, frequently convicted on drug charges, these non violent offenders receive astonishingly lengthy sentences and, once released, falter under the weight of court costs that, in left unpaid, will land them right back in jail. Compounding this situation is a society that is hesitant to hire an ex-offender, let alone rent one an apartment. Their white counterparts are offered rehabilitation programs, lighter sentences and are generally given the opportunity for a second chance at life, something rarely afforded to convicted criminals of color.

In my own lily white family, I have relatives that have been or are currently incarcerated. They arrived there by their own accord and choices. They were given opportunities for probation, which they inevitably violated. I am not painting those who break the law with one brush. I am, however, noting that we have a problem with race in this country and it has led us as an American penial system to incarcerate so many people that we spend more on prisons than education– and that speaks volumes about our values as a country.

We decided to learn more. We watched HBO’s documentary on mass incarceration, began a book study and we have invited our returning citizen friends back to discuss. This system we have is broken and we act as though that is acceptable because it doesn’t effect us. However, injustice to one is injustice for all, and Christ calls us to lift the oppressed and treat our brother as ourselves. According to Paul, authority is meant for building up, not tearing apart. Would you want your brother locked away for life for a minor offense? I challenge you to learn more, so that everyone has the opportunity to change their lives for the better.

Shady Living

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James 1:11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

I’m not a fan of the summer sun. I have skin the color of an American Standard toilet. Freckles of varying sizes and colors appear wherever the sun bakes my fair skinned body. Sure, I can use sunscreen and I do- SPF100 to be exact- but it feels uncomfortable to me: the flushing of my face, sweat everywhere, the literal heat radiating my tender flesh like a chicken roasting in the oven. I prefer shade.

I’ve been slowly coming to the realization that I can no longer exist in my present state. I’ve known this awhile, but as I have said previously, I am not a fan of discomfort. I don’t like to live my life feeling denied or uncomfortable. The idea of purposely putting oneself into a disciplined state of proper diet or the lactic acid after burn of a workouts feels vulnerable to me. Come to think of it, I’m not a fan of vulnerability either. I prefer remaining climate controlled.

But here’s the trouble: I really am not happy with this body. It isn’t flexible anymore, strong anymore or as light as it used to be before (and light is a relative term, believe me.) The problem with living in the shade is that shade can only exist because the sun exists. The sun allows the growth that provides the shade. Without its heat, buds would not awaken, without its light, chlorophyll would have nothing to convert to energy. The tree depends on the summer sun to gather its resources and nurture its soul for the long winter’s rest.

I encourage people all the time to lean into the uncomfortable. Break-ups, school, new hobbies, and especially, breaking old habits all cause a significant amount of discomfort. Perhaps I do that because I can bear a break-up, juggling multiple disciplines or tackling new hobbies without much fear. But this body of mine is a habit I dread breaking. When I ruminate on the terror of the exercise: waking early for the class, sweating, not having the stamina or flexibility, bearing The People of the Gym- I run in the opposite direction. Yet, as I say that I gaze upon the picture above and realize that to stay shaded means to live in the dark and no matter how comfortable that may be, and I am not a dweller of darkness. I am a child of salt and light. I bring leavening and drive out shadow. I am equipped to do that because of faith and my creation. Sometimes comfort can be more debilitating than our fear, especially when it comes to the disciple’s path. I am praying for courage and trust to live boldly into a new life out in the sun. Precious Lord, take me hand…

 

Our Duty to the Wilderness

A few years ago I was asked to preach during an ecumenical Lent mid-day service. The topic was forgiveness. I shared a story of the moment I confronted the man who had inappropriately touched me when I was a small child. The context itself- and how I ended up in that moment- was peculiar. I had been asked to supply preach at a church for 2 Sundays in a row. It turned out my perpetrator was the council president. I chose to preach a 2 part series on anger and forgiveness. The first Sunday, I spoke of the after effects for children when they are abused at a young age. I talked about the destructive nature of anger that can never be abated. I followed up the next week with a sermon highlighting the power of forgiveness and the freedom inherent when we step out of the spin cycle of bitterness.

Two things happened to me that first day. A young boy shook my hand on the way out of the church, eyes cast down, and said, “your sermon made sense to me.” I thanked him but didn’t get it until his mother followed behind with tears in her eyes. Then, I got it. This was personal for that boy. The next thing came after everyone else had left the church and I was retrieving my sermon text to leave. This man from my past asked for my forgiveness, but not before letting me know God had already forgiven him. In spite of, and perhaps because of, his words, I looked at this powerless man for who he was for the first time. In that moment I realized that for all my hurt and pain, it was he who needed compassion, not me. I was okay, I had overcome.

After I talked about that day in my Lenten sermon, I greeted people on the way out after lunch. There were the people who wouldn’t make eye contact, the ones who said, “nice message” and then there were the folks who squeezed your hand tighter or hugged for that extra minute. People like the young boy who communicated their understanding without explanation.

Every time I share my story of forgiveness I get that same reaction. A few words, a request to talk later, the squeeze of a hand. You may think that it is impolite to speak of unconscionable things in public, unnecessary to talk about the wilderness, but I do not agree.

How does one sustain the faith when surviving for forty days in the wilderness? How about forty years? You could be like Jesus and bear that hunger and loneliness all by yourself, but I doubt you could; because we are not the Messiah, we are the children of God and the children of God need each other.

So often we walk through this life secretly believing that whatever we are experiencing, we are unique in the struggle. From common medical complaints to emotional reactions, to deep pain from hidden assaults, how often have you heard someone say, “I didn’t know anyone else felt like that.”? I believe that we have a duty to the wilderness, and that is to share its experience. As the church, we are made up of those who are loud and open, and those who are silent and closed. We bear the same sadness and loss, the same burdens weigh heavily on us. It will be the open folks who will not shy away from the wilderness tale and how God has carried you through your forty days or forty years- whichever may be true for you. The closed folks will be silent, but they will appreciate the journey because they understand it. And for those who have never experienced that type of struggle, their eyes will be opened for the first time; and maybe they will see their loved one or the neighbor in a more compassionate light.

What if we knew nothing of Jesus’s temptation or his arduous, painful journey to Golgotha? What if Matthew, Mark and Luke didn’t record the near misses of death by crowds or badgering by the authorities? How could we really imagine the miracle of our Messiah if we didn’t have the suffering of Mary and Martha when they meet Jesus on the road after their brother Lazarus had died?

We are, like it or not, one body. If one of us is suffering so likewise for the rest. The responsibility of the wilderness- let’s call it our duty- is not to survive the struggle and tuck it away shamefully, but to share the journey. Talk about your mistakes and where you learned for positive change. Live out the blessing of survival. When we own how the wilderness has formed us and share that formation, we communicate both aloud and silently the way in which Christ carries us through and compels us forward into the world, shining our light for all to see. This wilderness of mine was my shame until it became my blessing, and I pray yours will be a blessing as well.

The Devil’s Tongue

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photo courtesy of N.J. Stermer

 

I opened up my commentary from Luke and out of its pages came this photo. I received it a few years ago from a parishioner who shared it along with some fascinating information. Called Devil’s Tongue, the flower is filled with flies, and stinks with the smell of a dead water buffalo- to attract the pollinators she said. She noticed it alongside her house, but never remembered planting it or seeing it before.

I held on to the photo because it is, in many ways, the personification of why we need Lent. More than a few of us walk this world looking beautiful and lush- draped in vibrant clothes and flowing with blessings and privileges.  We are flushed with greenery even while the world around us turns withered and brown. BUT, for fear of losing all our finery, we use our tongues to cast out into the world words of negativity and jealousy that create a stink that only attracts more people like us- people living in a state of greed, bitterness and closed mindedness. Outside, we are gorgeous and lush, inside we resemble Gollum from Tolkien’s tales, muttering about our “precious.” If someone pointed out our words and behavior, we might not remember how we accumulated this desire to protect ourselves at the expense of others who are different from ourselves. Perhaps we’d shrug and say it just showed up one day.

Lent encourages us to take stock of the flies we attract and the stink we emit. It challenges us to examine closely the less disciple-worthy things our devil tongues say, as well as what we do and think; and it asks us to cast them off for a month of so, to see how our lives change for the better when we are less angry, ignorant, jealous or resentful. As crazy as it sounds, it’s a lot to ask of a person- to profoundly change their emotional reactions and thoughts; perhaps even harder than giving up beer or dessert. Not as hard as giving your life for the sins of the world entire, but difficult nonetheless. And yet, in the process of letting go, we may just find peace where before we were unsettled and anxious. Also, we may find substantially less flies surrounding us, and that’s always a bonus.