Tag Archives: community

For Such a Time as This. . .

What a time to be the church, huh? A sign of life in the midst of swirling waters.

Challenging times and difficult decisions, decisions that are at the very heart of who we are called to be and what we are called to do: to love and care for people as the presence of Christ in the world. 

I know that a lot of you are weighed down with the burden of the moment. I am, too. When we make hard decisions, even those for which there really is no other option, no matter what we decide, someone’s going to be disappointed, even angry. Don’t take it personally. That comes with the territory. It’s not about you. 

At our place, we made the decision on Saturday morning to suspend in-person worship for the next four weeks. That seemed pretty radical at the time. It’s only 48 hours later, and the CDC is recommending that we plan on not gathering for the next 8 weeks. This morning, it was no gatherings of more than 50. This afternoon, it’s no gatherings more than 10. 

I came away from our meeting on Saturday with a deep respect for our leaders. They knew the gravity of the decision we were making. Individually, we did not come to the same conclusion about how we should move forward. Yet our conversation was respectful, loving, and imbued with a spirit of how best to love our neighbor. That was community and leadership at its best. I love those people. 

We are carefully avoiding using the language that church is cancelled. It’s not. At our place, it’s just taking a different form. So, yesterday morning I gathered in the sanctuary with a couple of tech people, a pianist, and a small group of singers and we worshiped. Before going live, we gathered in prayer, asking God to use this time to bring us together even though we were separated by distance. The whole experience was not what I imagined it would be. It was way better. We were standing on holy ground, even if virtual holy ground. A remnant gathered though scattered. And while I couldn’t read the comments, I could see on my phone screen the comments that poured in while we were worshiping, people participating remotely, yet still somehow gathered together. For those who weren’t on Facebook or couldn’t tune in at the right time, the whole service was uploaded to our website for folks to join at any time, and as the day rolled on, so did the supportive comments. I did my grocery run this afternoon, and saw a member who said she loved going to church in her pajamas.

What I’m discovering already — even in these first few days that necessitate a different way of being church — s that though we are not together, a strong sense of community persists, and maybe it’s even growing. At our meeting on Saturday, our council members committed to make personal phone calls to all our local residents once a week. I’ve also committed to making 10 phone calls a day, just checking in with people. We send out a weekly e-newsletter; I think for the time being, I’m going to send out a daily e-letter, just to remind God’s people that they are part of us, and they are in our prayers. I’m also designating times when I’m going to invite the whole congregation to be in prayer (thanks, Northwest Synod!). And instead of our midweek Lenten service, I’m going to livestream a brief order of compline. We’re going to use our website to upload printed versions of our livestream services so folks at home can follow along. In these times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are going to do our best to keep people connected. For all of us, what a blessing to have social media, email, websites, and iPhones! 

We got a message from our bishop this morning recommending that all congregations cancel their services. I’m grateful for that word coming from the synod office, especially to provide cover for pastors who would be putting their own ministry at risk were they to make the decision without support from above. 

If you’re a leader, hang in there. Take care of yourself. Make sure to schedule those times that feed you and get your mind off the hard stuff for a while. I’m finding myself even more drawn to spend time in scripture and prayer. Maybe that, too, is one of the blessings of suddenly having everything taken off my schedule. 

If you’re a lay member of a church, give your pastor and congregational leaders some love. They need it. They are feeling the weight and the burden of the decisions and of how to be in ministry to you and with you. Send them an email or note of encouragement. Post something supportive and kind publicly on Facebook. Let them know you are praying for them. Make sure you keep up with your pledge. 

I feel the weight of these times. Yet, I feel unexpectedly hopeful, even excited, for the authentic opportunities we have to be church. For such a time as this, we are church. 

“I’m Going to Have to Charge You Ten Bucks for That”

A few weeks ago, I picked up one of my parishioners at his house to accompany him on a visit to his wife in a care center so he could  properly introduce her to the new pastor. He’s lived nearly 30 years as a retiree in Door County and knows his way around pretty well, I’ve discovered.

As he stepped into the passenger seat and got situated, I apologized in advance. “You’re going to hear a rattle in the exhaust system. I’m sorry for it. It will probably drive you nuts; I know it does me, but it started a few days ago, and I haven’t had a chance to get it fixed.”

We drove down his long driveway and onto the paved road. “Yup. There it is. I can hear it,” he said. “You should take it in to see Kenny. He runs the gas station in Ellison Bay. When you pull in to Kenny’s, he comes out and pumps the gas for you, washes your windshield, and even checks your oil if you ask.”

“And he does car repair?”

“Yeah, as long as it’s not too complicated.”

“Oil changes?”

“Sure. It’s a good place to get your oil changed.”

An hour later, we were on our way back home. As we approached Ellison Bay, he said, “Why don’t you stop in and see if Kenny can take a look at it?”

“Right now? Without an appointment?”

“Sure. He’s probably not doing anything else.”

We pulled in to the 1960’s style gas station with two pumps outside and the black rubber hoses on the pavement that made a “ding-ding” when you drive over them. Kenny looked up from his chair inside as if we had awoken him from a nap.

I walked inside. “I’m Jim. I’m the new pastor at Shepherd of the Bay.”

“Ah. I heard they finally got one.”

“I have a rattle in my exhaust system and my friend here thought you might be able to take a look at it.”

“Sure, I can take a look at it.  I’ll have to put it up on the lift.”

He drove the car into the service bay and put it up on one of the old-fashioned lifts that I haven’t seen since I was a kid. From the lobby area, I could  hear him as he walked around banging on the exhaust system with his leather-gloved fist, talking to himself all the way. “Nothing here. It’s gotta be a heat shield. Nothing here.” Before long his banging reproduced the annoying rattle. 

“Come on out here,” he yelled.

I pushed through the wood framed screen door from the counter area to the garage and stood under my car next to Kenny. “See this here heat shield? It’s loose. I can’t really take it off. These bolts are all rusted. Not sure what I can do.”  As he talked, he began to poke a big screwdriver in the seam between the top and bottom of the heat shield prying things back and forth. Then he stuck the screwdriver in his pocket and started banging again; the rattle was gone. “There. I think that might be better.”

I walked back inside and waited for Kenny to lower my car and back it out of the bay.

Back inside behind the cash register, he said, “I’m going to have to charge you $10 for that.”   I couldn’t tell whether he was apologizing for charging me or was afraid I was going to put up a fuss about $10.  I was happy to pay that sum and was trying to figure out a way to tell him I’d be happy to pay more. But we left it at that.

Contrast that with an experience I had at a dealer several years ago. I hadn’t had the car very long and the check engine light came on. The car didn’t seem to be running poorly, so I was tempted to ignore it. But I also worried that to do so might be foolhardy. Plus, when the check engine light is on, the cruise control is automatically deactivated. So, I took it in. They hooked it up to their diagnostic computer. Within five minutes, the technician came back and said, “The good news is that there isn’t anything wrong with your car.” Then he walked me around to the rear passenger side of the car where the access door to the gas tank was open. He took the gas cap in his hand and screwed it on, and with a little drama, tightened the gas cap.  “Your gas cap wasn’t tight. It lets too much oxygen in. Just make sure that whenever you get gas, you turn the lid on tight.”  And the bill was $125. For five minutes. No work, no repair except to tighten the gas cap. Their policy was that whenever they had to hook the car up to the diagnostic machine, the minimum charge was $125. (I since learned that there are many places that will do that for no charge.) I tried to complain that the charge was outlandish and unreasonable. To no avail. “I’m sorry sir, but this is our company policy.”  That was the last time I went to that dealer. It was clear to me that they weren’t interested in a relationship with me as a customer other than a purely economic transaction in which they could enact their policies to insure a profitable bottom line.

I don’t even know exactly why I’m writing this except to lament the loss of a time when an economic transaction often was more than that. It was also embedded in a personal, human to human relationship.

The globalization of the economy has clearly brought benefits to millions of people. It has provided access to low cost goods from around the world. It has made some Americans more aware of people of different cultures and has for them fostered a sense of the common humanity across cultural divides. It has provided developing countries with access to capital that has increased production and provided jobs.

It has not, however, been a universal benefit. To a large degree, the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs in the US can be traced to companies moving their factories to locations around the globe where the cost of labor is much lower. And while it has provided jobs in those countries, the lack of regulation has made possible deplorable working conditions and wages that do not allow the workers to really move out of subsistence living.

But we’ve lost something more subtle, more fundamental, more valuable. We’ve lost that mediating human presence between me as a consumer and the large corporation with whom I am forced to do business. Kenny doesn’t refine the oil that he pumps as gasoline into his customers’ cars. But he is a real person who is a comforting and knowledgeable middleman between big oil and me. Kenny wasn’t afraid to tell me that he thinks my clutch is adjusted a little too close to the floor. I appreciate that. How else would I know?

I know we can’t and won’t go back to the way things used to be. In spite of the promise of politicians that they will bring back American manufacturing jobs, that isn’t going to happen. We’re way beyond that.

But I wonder if we can look for places to embed economic transactions within a relationship. When it’s possible to have some kind of human to human relationship with the person with whom I am making an economic transaction, doing business is for more than making a profit. There’s nothing wrong with making a profit. A person in business should be able to earn a living, even a comfortable living, for their work. But when there is a relationship, it is more than an economic transaction. It is an expression of community. And at least in the way I understand things, we were created to be in community.

There’s a movement to buy local, a movement which I wholeheartedly support. The thought behind it is to keep money in the local economy and provide jobs for local people. For me, it goes deeper than that. Making an economic transaction with someone with whom I have a relationship strengthens the essential fabric of community. Relationships, far more than transactions, build, maintain, and strengthen the places we live and make them into good, thriving communities. Good, thriving community is good for all of us.

With Gratitude for Those with Burning Hearts

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571 – 1610
The Supper at Emmaus
Oil and tempera on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm
Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839

I walked into the gallery and immediately was struck by the size. Seeing a painting in a brochure doesn’t prepare you for a confrontation with a near life-sized painting. The Michelangelo Caravaggio “Supper at Emmaus”  was on loan from The National Gallery in London to The Art Institute of Chicago.

There’s the calm, peaceful countenance of Jesus at the center, his eyes serenely closed, his right hand extended in blessing. And I love the different reactions of the three sitting at table with Jesus. For the guy standing behind him, everything is reduced to a profound sense of wonder. The guy seated across from Jesus leans forward trying to believe the unbelievable, ready to reach across the table to verify with his hand what his eyes are telling him. The guy seated at the side of the table is retelling the story with his wild, broad gesticulating as if in the retelling it will make more sense.

The one detail that consistently grabs me is the dish teetering on the edge of the table. At the Art Institute, the crowd studied the painting from a carefully demarcated viewing area, stanchions separating the humans from the painting. I had this urge to reach across the divide and push that dish away from the edge.

For me that dish is the locus of tension. Is the dish going to hold or fall of the edge? One little bump on the table — which I can assure you I would have done inadvertently had I been there — and it goes crashing to the floor. Maybe it’s a visible sign of the tension still in the hearts and minds of those disciples. Was the Jesus sitting across the table real? Was the story he told them really true? Those questions and that tension are palpable in their postures and gestures. I can only imagine how acute the tension must have been when shortly after the moment captured in the painting  Jesus vanished from their sight.

I know that tension. I experience moments of extraordinary clarity, when God’s presence and God’s goodness are so real I can reach out and touch God’s wounded hands. And I experience moments when I wonder whether any of it is true,  when I feel acutely God’s  absence.  In those moments, I wonder if it will all hold together. Or will it go crashing to the floor? Is the resurrection life that Jesus promises more than just wishful thinking? 

Luke tells us that after Jesus disappeared, their hearts were burning within them, as if he became more real in his absence than in his presence.

I have my own version of Cleopas and his companions. They accompany me on the road with the risen Christ, who, by the way, is there whether we recognize him or not. Sometimes the road is only 7 miles; sometimes it feels like a lot longer. I’m grateful not to have to walk the road alone. Companions hold me up with their excitement at seeing the risen Christ, telling me how their hearts burn within them, even when whatever it is that I possess feels more like a flicker than a flame.

I met this week with a couple of nonagenarians whose faith had the quality of a fine, aged wine. They have endured the trials and can see God’s goodness and presence with the sharp-eyed vision of an eagle. They are the very incarnation of what last Sunday’s second lesson (1 Peter 1:3-9) described as an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” faith that has been refined by trial and has come out the other side as pure and precious as gold. I also had coffee the other day with a guy who told me of his deep prayer life and how God was answering his prayers and about the opportunities for ministry that came out of those prayers. The burning quality of his faith was contagious.

I don’t very often experience my faith with that kind of sharp clarity. My experience is more like Paul’s metaphor of seeing through a glass dimly. More like a dish teetering on the edge of the table and about to fall off. Why is that, I sometimes wonder. A function of temperament? Personal defect? Not trying hard enough? I never come up with an answer.

Which makes me all the more grateful for those with burning hearts. My fellow pilgrims and their witness are often the proof of the presence of the risen Christ. I’m grateful that my faith is not just a me and Jesus thing. My fellow travelers have seen the risen Christ, and that is enough encouragement to keep walking.

We Are Going to Need Each Other

mlkspeech-1On Monday evening, I had the honor of delivering the keynote speech for the DuPage County Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration. It was a great evening that included great music and a dramatic delivery of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Here is the text from which I gave my remarks on Monday.

I don’t have the words fully to express to you how honored I am to have the chance to stand in this pulpit this evening. I am humbled I am to stand in the line of the fine speakers you have had addressing God’s people on the occasion when we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I sat right there in the front row last year and was deeply moved by the words of Dr. Tracy Malone. I am grateful to my colleague and friend, Pastor Kevin Williams, and the people at Second Baptist Church for extending the invitation and for all the work that has gone into organizing and publicizing this event.

Pastor Williams called me on Friday afternoon to check in and see how things were with me.  “Man, something has changed,” he said. “We are going to need this gathering and each other more than ever.”  Amen to that.

When I accepted this invitation back in September, most of us thought we would be on the cusp of swearing in the first woman president of the United States. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, we are about to inaugurate a new president who campaigned on division, bigotry, and xenophobia. He won the presidency by way of the electoral college, though he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 millions votes. Some people have said that we have taken a step back in progress we had made in addressing the challenges of a racialized society. I wonder if that’s true. I have a hunch that the curtain has been pulled back revealing who we have been all along; but the ugliness is no longer hidden. It’s out there in the open for all of us to see; and it seems to legitimize action that comes of the darkest corners of our collective psyche.

I remember 8 years ago at inauguration time. There was almost this giddy sense of excitement and optimism. I invited our church staff over to our home to watch the inauguration. We ate snacks and toasted with champagne. The theme was hope, and in every place where a crowd gathered you could hear the chants, “Yes, we can.”  What a contrast to “Lock her up.”

Something has shifted. I don’t know many who are feeling that sense of unbridled optimism, even among those who voted for the president elect. Instead it’s like a pall of fear has descended on our whole country. Fear seems to be consistent among those who voted for him and those who didn’t. I’ve spent some time talking with those who voted for our president-elect. I’ve wanted to understand. Among many things I’ve discovered is that even those who are happy with the results of the election are not feeling a great sense of optimism and hope; they don’t feel like we have taken some giant step forward. It’s hard to know for sure what’s going on.

Fear is nothing new. In an age of iphones, social media, and the constant, 24/7 barrage of headlines and sound bites it’s a wonder we ever come out of our homes. The evening news is often little more than an update on what we should be afraid of today. What we eat, what we drive, what’s going on halfway around the world, what’s going on in our own city — the list of things we should be afraid of is never ending.

But the present fear goes beyond that. The campaign language of bigotry has unleashed a storm of bigoted actions. The disregard for truth has left us with an even greater suspicion of the institutions that are so vital to our democracy. We’ve even coined language for it, as if it’s perfectly acceptable and normal — they say we now live in a post-truth culture.

But it’s not normal. And it’s not the kind of country that I want to live in. I do not want to live in a country where truth doesn’t matter. I do not want to live in a country where fear and suspicion and hatred and stridency are the dominant forces that drive our public life.  Do we want communities where we are suspicious of each other? Where we choose to highlight our differences? Where there is no room for the stranger or for the person trying to make a new start, for the family trying to make a life for themselves, to escape the violence of their neighborhood or their home country? Do we want communities where we slice and dice and categorize based on color of skin or which street you live on or which symbols are in your house of worship or where your parents were born?

Dr. King had a vision for something greater and grander. On Christmas Eve, 1967, just a few months before he was assassinated he preached these words at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he was co-pastor:  This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and good will toward all men can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian. . .Let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means that we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. . .As nations and individuals, we are interdependent. . .All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.

That’s what we want. An interrelated community that reflects how the creator has made us. When God created that first man, God said it is not good for the man to be alone. So, God created the woman; in that moment began the interrelatedness of the human species. We are created to be in community. Not just created in community, but created to care for and love and support one another.

In my religious tradition, Jesus is kind of a big deal. Throughout his ministry, Jesus lifted up the necessity of caring for one another. When he was preaching for a crowd of thousands and saw that they had no lunch, he fed them. When he encountered a blind man, he restored his sight, the deaf man could hear again, the lame man could walk again, the lepers he cleansed. He authorized his followers to do the same thing. He told a story about how some folks had given food to the hungry and a drink of water to the thirsty and clothing to the naked. And when they did that, Jesus told them that they had done it for him. When we serve our neighbor, we are serving God. We see God in the face of our neighbor. Caring for one another in community and relationship is holy work. That’s the beloved community of our dreams.

The challenge always is to turn our dreams into reality. This week, all our attention is on Washington, there being an inauguration and all. Some folks think there’s this big thing called government that’s going to take care of stuff. We elect the right people and the right things will happen. And when we don’t elect the right people, well, bad things happen and that’s government. It’s too big and the forces are too strong and we can’t do anything about it. After all, you can’t fight city hall.

But I refuse to believe in that kind of determinism, that we are subject to inevitable and unassailable forces. We are not victims of the vagaries of history. If there’s anything the legacy of Dr. King has show us it’s that common, ordinary people have the agency to be a force for the good in the communities where they live.

Too many people subscribe to a narrative of the civil rights movement that is simplistic and simply not true. In his book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne summarizes that popular narrative like this:

Traditionally, relationships between the races in the South were oppressive. Many Southerners were very prejudiced against Blacks. In 1954, the Supreme Court decided this was wrong. Inspired by the court, courageous Americans, Black and white, took protest to the street, in the form of sit-ins, bus boycotts, and Freedom Rides. The nonviolent protest movement, led by the brilliant and eloquent Reverend Martin Luther King, aided by a sympathetic federal government, most notably the Kennedy brothers and a born-again Lyndon Johnson, was able to make America understand racial discrimination as a moral issue. Once Americans understood that discrimination was wrong, they quickly moved to remove racial prejudice and discrimination from American life, as evidenced by the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Dr. King was tragically slain in 1968. Fortunately, by that time the country had been changed, changed for the better in some fundamental ways. The movement was a remarkable victory for all Americans. By the 1970s, Southern states where Blacks could not have voted ten years earlier were sending African Americans to Congress.

Simplistic. And wrong. The movement was much more than that. That’s not how it happened. The civil rights movement didn’t start in Washington with the courts or with federal government. It started in the towns and villages of Mississippi and Alabama where people whose names we don’t remember went door to door and did the long, slow, hard work of relating with people and organizing them, folks like Amzi Moore and Mrs. Haner and Mrs. McGhee and Annie Devine. Dozens of college students and a handful of high school students spread across Mississippi and went door to door getting to know people and finding out who would show up for actions and what people were worried about. When big actions were planned, actions like bus boycotts and the March from Selma to Montgomery, leaders and ordinary folk gathered to plan and to train. They role played about what would be said or done in certain situations. They trained people in how to take a beating. A younger version of U. S. Representative John Lewis was present for that training, and maybe that’s what allowed him to take the beating at the hands of the Alabama State Police that left him bleeding on the Edmund Pettis Bridge with a fractured skull. By the way, you can say many things about U. S. Representative John Lewis. But you cannot call him a man of all talk an no action. He is one of the living heroes of our democracy.

The leaders of the civil rights movement understood that when citizens want to get serious about becoming agents for the common good in their own communities it takes a lot of long, slow, persistent, consistent, and mostly unglamorous work. It requires sitting down one on one, talking to people. It requires painstaking research to discover what actions can be taken that will move us towards justice, righteousness, and that peaceable kingdom. It involves knowing the power structures in a community and institutions. It demands planning actions that will elicit a reaction. When the civil rights movement leaders planned marches and put school children in the front of those marches so that they would be the first ones to encounter Bull Connor’s police dogs, that was not an accident. It was planned to elicit a certain reaction. Those young people who went door to door building relationships and training leaders began to coalesce their power. They were organizers. It was long, slow work, but it was respectful work, work that was intentional and the kind of work that was absolutely essential to their success.

Weeks ago, when I was thinking about these remarks, and making some notes, I wrote this note to myself:  “I don’t want to make this speech into a commercial for community organizing.” A few weeks later, I came back to that note and I wrote in the margin, “But maybe I do.” 

What I have experienced in organizing is that we can turn our care for our communities and our neighborhoods and our neighbors into action that is more than symbolic. Symbolic action has its place. This gathering this evening is mostly symbolic. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. It’s just to recognize the limitations of a symbolic gathering. Hopefully, it will be inspirational, and we will leave here with a sense of hope and a determination to go to work. At its best, this gathering will prod us to action. But this gathering makes no plan for action.

If we were to make a commitment to join together for the sake of working together, that would be something different. If we made a commitment to plan together and to work together and we began organizing ourselves to actually do that, we could expect that we would begin to enact the vision that we have for what our community should be. If we were to make specific determination about the challenges of our community and pull together the power of the people, we would discover that we can do things, we can make a difference. It doesn’t have to be all talk.

What I have experienced in community organizing is the best chance we have to enact God’s vision for what the world should be. I am a leader with DuPage United, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national parent organization for organizing work that is being done across the country. We are doing real work. Here in our community, we have taken action to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters in the face of ramped up Islamophobia. We have pushed the DuPage County sheriff’s Department to provide Crisis Intervention Training for all of the sheriff’s deputies out on the beat. We are in the process of setting up community mental health crisis centers so we keep people who are having a mental health crisis out of the emergency room and out of jail, and most importantly, insure that they get the help they need. We can’t rely on the state to get this work done. The state of Illinois is broken. We’ve got to take things into our own hands, and we can do it. Yes, we can. 

In the next four years we are going to need each other. We are going to need to be in relationship. We are going to need to be organized. We simply must do the hard, slow, painstaking work of meeting with one another, developing a web of relationship in our community, so that I stand with you when you need me, and you stand with me when I need you. It remains to be seen whether the hateful and divisive rhetoric of the campaign will turn into policy and action. In a sense, it doesn’t matter; we’re going to need each other. You need to know that when your health insurance stops covering pre-existing conditions, your neighbors will stand next to you and fight for what’s right. When you are required to register because you are a Muslim, you need to know that there will be Christians who will stand in that line and get registered right along with you. When the school to prison pipeline keeps growing and flourishing, you need to know that you will have neighbors who will take action with you to demand that fairness and equality and justice are blind to skin color. We will need each other more than ever. I believe that’s the work that Dr. King was involved in. I think that’s the work that preserves and continues his legacy. It doesn’t matter who is president of the United States or what the Congress does or doesn’t do. We will join hands and we will work and plans and organize and fight and demand together, until justice flows down like water.

Indulge me with just a few more minutes to speak to those of you here tonight who are members of the white Christian church. If this speech was a letter, this would be the P. S. The white church has a miserable record of silence, complacency, and complicity when it comes to matters of race in this country. Too often, the white church has worked to maintain the structures of racism that have oppressed our fellow citizens of African descent, systems that have denied them the same opportunities that we white people have taken for granted.

I confess that I am late to this work. I confess my own complicity. I confess that it took the shootings at Mother Emmanuel Church to wake me up. The shooter was a member of a church in my denomination. He grew up in a white Lutheran church and attended confirmation class, probably not all that different from the confirmation classes I teach. Yet somehow his connection to church, to my church, could not erase a deep hate based only on race.

Shortly after that shooting,  I went to a colleague who pastors a church with a significant African American membership and asked if we could get members of our congregations together; I said I needed them to help us understand the problems and challenges of racism.  He schooled me; he told me “That’s not our job.” He told me, “You white people need to do your work, begin to understand racism and white privilege and how racialized our society has become.” I was taken aback. I had never heard that before. So, I got on the Facebook page for the clergy of my denomination. And I asked the question there. And I got schooled again, this time not so gently. “You white people need to do your own work. When you have done your work, come back and then we can talk.” So, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. In my congregation, all of our staff have been through anti-racism training. We have sponsored anti-racism training for our members. We are reading; we are having conversations; we are learning. We are waking up.

In the past year, Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Drew G. I. Hart have both written compelling books on racism and the church. While they disagree on certain points, they both believe that we will not make substantial progress in dismantling racism in our country until the white church shows up and starts making it a priority. That is not to say that white liberals are going to bring racial equality to the people of color. That’s a colonial attitude that has been part of the problem. I mean to say that we have our own work to do in recognizing white privilege and doing our work to begin dismantling the structures of racism.

This is my challenge to you, white church. Show up. Do your work. Have the conversations. Read TaNehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Nell Ervin Painter, The History of Whiteness, Debby Irving, Waking up White.

We are going to need each other. And if we in the white church are going to be our best selves and really be neighbors, then we simply must do our own work.

No matter the darkness, there is always light. No matter the fear, there is always hope. Together we can do this work.

This is a song that I learned as a child and I will never out grow it. Dr. King said that darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Together we will shine the light into the dark places.

(And we sang:)This little light of mine.I’m going to let it shine. . .

Ev’ry where I go, I’m going to let it shine. . .

Reflections on a Church Picnic

picnic2To look at the event from the outside, it didn’t look like anything very special. It was a church picnic. We grilled some hamburgers, brats, and hotdogs. We planned some activities. We brought some food to share.  In fact, to look at the event from the perspective of the weather, its kind of surprising that anyone showed up at all. In the time leading up the the publicized starting time, the skies looked ominous, and there were sprinkles. It looked so threatening that at the last minute, we decided to move the tables for eating into the building. We bought meat to grill for 100 people, and we began to wonder if there would be 25.

O ye of little faith.

They came, they came, and they kept coming. By the time we finished cooking (and a quick trip to the nearby supermarket to replenish the repast), almost 150 came. The energy in the room was high. The conversation was exuberant. The crowd spilled out the doors of the building out onto the patio where, even though no tables were set up, folks found a place to sit, eat, and enjoy each other’s company.

And it wasn’t just one group in the congregation that came. People who have been members for 40 years came and people have been here less than a year came. The young, the old, the greatest generation, the millenials, families with kids, couples with no kids. It was an astonishing mosaic of the people of Faith.

What happened after dinner was even more amazing. We wanted to get together for no other purpose than to celebrate God’s presence and action in our congregation. So, the plan was to have fun and play. When it was time to play, we invited everyone out onto the lawn and got them in a circle. We played a silly game that invited people into saying silly words and doing silly actions. People did it! The laughter and silliness going around that circle became infectious. Even those who didn’t join in the game began to draw in close just to watch and vicariously join in the antics.

After the circle game, the game leader invited us to find a partner — someone not the same age as you, he said. My partner was Avery, a rambunctious first grader (give or take) who had written on his name tag, “The Mayor.”  So, upon the direction of the game leaders, The Mayor and I got into the parallel lines facing each other when they began handing out the water balloons and the raw eggs. Yep, we did that. The luck of the draw gave The Mayor and me an egg which we proceeded to toss back and forth. The Mayor was astonishingly lucky; I don’t think he caught the egg once, but the soft grass kept on preserving the egg. Until it cracked on one of those tumbles into the grass and then broke when he tossed it back to me! But no worries, it gave me a chance to stand back and watch the remarkable thing that was happening as the young and old embraced this play together.

After the games, we formed a new assembly on the driveway. One of our staff members climbed a step ladder and feigned a game of Simon Says. In reality, was teaching the crowd a series of dance steps. By the time she made the reveal, everyone was having too much fun to opt out.  Yep, we did that, too. We danced on the driveway. Pherrel’s Happy blaring in the background. We wouldn’t win any dance competitions, but did we ever have fun.


A few things have stayed with me in these days since that gathering. We probably don’t get together enough for no reason. Most of the time we invite folks together, there’s an agenda: we’re celebrating the arrival or leaving of a pastor, we have business to do, we need to ask for money, there’s something we want people to learn, there’s music to listen to or a new program to introduce. In this case, we invited people to come together and explicitly told them, “We are getting together for no other reason than to celebrate God’s presence and activity among us and to enjoy one another’s company.” And those who gathered embraced that agenda with extraordinary enthusiasm.

At one point, I stepped back from the circle of silliness and just watched. I became choked with emotion as I began to wonder, “Where else does this happen?” Where else will you find the young and old and everyone in between, people who are not bound to each other by family ties, engaging in that very necessary human activity of play? Yes, in our culture we play softball and futbol and basketball, but that’s very different. Those are competitive activities that require some skill. We were playing together in non-competitive, no-skill-required fun that was packed with silliness besides. There’s something to be said for that, and we’d probably all be better off were we to do it more often.

We, like almost every congregation I know, want to build genuine community. But that’s an elusive thing. I don’t think there’s a formula to it. By definition, community can’t be done casually or superficially. And it’s different than hospitality. It includes welcoming each other and the stranger, but it’s more than that. We work at it; we think about how it can happen. Sometimes it feels like we’re making progress; sometimes, I wonder. While I’m not sure why this particular event worked so well, I think we got some glimpses of what true community is like. And at something as simple as a church picnic. Go figure.