Saturday, July 9, 2016

What Atticus Finch Would Say About #PhilandoCastile #AltonSterling #Dallas

Thursday night, I was talking to my five-year-old son about ‪#‎PhilandoCastile‬ and ‪#‎AltonSterling. We were on our way to get a haircut and, as he sat in the backseat of our car, I wanted to engage his tender heart not yet jilted by cynicism.

How I envy him and our other two children. 

Without even the slightest of hesitation, my son went on a rant about how all should be treated the same and able to go to the same schools and ride the same buses and sit wherever they want. He started talking about Martin Luther King, Jr., and his call to love everybody. He told me God made everybody in a lot of different colors. All this and more he has learned from his family and his teachers- the village of saints who have framed the minds of our children.

My eyes welled up a bit, especially as I thought about how he lives this out when at the playground or any public place. The kid befriends anyone within reach. He loves to love and be loved. He has few barriers to personal extensions of welcome and invitations of inclusion. Difference does not divide his sense of community between us and them. For my son, there is only “we.” He has yet to be exposed to the painful realities of marginalization, racism, and various phobias that plague our nation and world. He is certainly unaware of his privilege. The same is true for his siblings. 

As we drove, I also thought about the four-year-old girl who watched her father, Philando Castile, be executed out of hate and ignorance while she sat in the backseat of the family car. My heart broke and my spirit raged. Maybe she had similar conversations with her daddy en route to haircuts or grocery stores, preschool or playground. Her father may have explained to her that sometimes people would not treat her and others like her as though they were worthy of love, respect, and equal opportunity. Much like my son, this may have been something she was unable to understand; now she unjustly knows more than any other young child.

Atticus Finch may have been on to something when he suggested to his daughter, Scout, “maybe we need a police force of children” (To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper L. Lee). 

If our public defenders were children, they wouldn’t kill the black lives that matter; maybe others would’t be so enraged to take the lives of law enforcement, either. 

That same Thursday night, a mere four hours after talking with my son, my phone started going haywire with news alerts and text messages. The Dallas protests, intended to serve as peaceful demonstrations in light of the murder of Philando Castile‬ and Alton Sterling, had been co-opted. Eleven officers sniped and five killed. More victims. More mourning. More madness. 

We can no longer find safety in our assemblies and protests. We do not know how to make for peace. We know only of fear and violence begetting more violence. 

We have lost our imagination and ability to dream of alternative solutions. Some may feel as though they have run out of “alternative solutions” as they battle hostility and fear




So we are wearied. We are worn.  While hashtags, blogposts, prayers, and well-intentioned statements may keep a critical conversation at the forefront of our cultural concerns, we need much more.  My “slackivism" that frames this blog entry and others is certainly not enough.

So I am asking a lot of questions, saying a fair share of prayers, reading Scripture, and doing my best not to be frozen by frustration and despair.  I am confronting my own prejudices, confessing and clipping away my own racism, acknowledging my privilege, and looking for leaders I can learn alongside. I am talking with (and hugging) my children while also listening to the voices of those who know too well what it means to be judged by the color of their skin not the content of their character.  I am committing to engage movements of change supported by the ecumenical, interfaith, and bipartisan community whereby citizens and public servants work hand in hand to confront all forms of injustice and oppression that take human lives as collateral for cowardice ideologies, insecurities, and fanatical corruptions of whatever religion of choice. 

The time is now to dismantle the hate and racism that plagues our communities and steals the daddies away from their kids. Actually, the time was yesterday and the day before and the years before that. 

Our children are counting on us. Actually, they may be the ones best able to lead us. 

"See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are...Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, 
but in truth and action." 
(1 John 3:1, 18)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

From Polity to Pavement: Brief Reflections on the 222nd General Assembly

One of the privileges of being a General Assembly attendee versus commissioner is the chance to observe all the committees as they pour over the nearly 100 overtures requiring action. As I walked into room after room, I was blown away by the faithful conversations the church was having in regards to our local, international, ecclesial, financial, social, ecological, institutional, ecumenical, and theological witness.  

...and breathe...

While not all conversations were invigorating, "ho-hum" could be said about more than a few items of business, and disagreement was certainly present, each conversation was laced in the question- “what does this mean in light of the hope that is our calling as the church of Jesus Christ?” 

The faithful actions of the Assembly, which are too numerous to account for fully in this blogpost,* enabled the Church to bear witness to God's love and grace, near and far. The Assembly elected two women as co-moderators and an African-American Stated Clerk, both firsts for our denomination as we change the face of our leadership. We embraced the Belhar Confession, pulling into the present Belhar's call to model the same unity, justice, and reconciliation in the midst of all that separates persons from one another in our given time and place. Said differently, Belhar is now us!

Our corporate and confessional voice called for the acknowledgement of harm done to LGBTQ/Q people, expressions of apology to Native Americans dishonored at the hands of our Presbyterian ancestors, and directed our Stated Clerk to request from the United States government an apology and statement of regret sent to the Republic of Korea in light of the known killing of Korean Civilians at the battle of No Gun Ri during the Korean War (history lessons are as much a part of General Assembly as anything else).

The General Assembly affirmed and simultaneously lived into our commitment to nonviolent means to alleviate oppression and injustice as we moved to divest from (or begin the process of) corporations that profit off violence and oppression in the Middle East and the exploitation of creation.  Our polity was even an agent of God’s grace and reconciliation as, after testimony from a Presbyterian minister who was sexually abused as a child by a chaperone at a PCUSA youth event, commissioners approved a Children/Youth/Vulnerable Adult protection policy to be implemented by all mid councils and mirrored by local congregations. Following the plenary vote, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons elicited a tearful-apology and vowed to ensure the safety of all children. 

The list goes on, sure to include the recommendation to address the increasing generational gap in our denomination, approve a new Directory of Worship and related inclusive sacramental language, and call for a commission to explore the PCUSA's organizational structure as we discern a new “Way Forward.” 

After a week of committee work, thoughtful debate, pursuit of perfected motions (or substitute motions), and a crash course in Robert’s Rules of Order, there are many reasons to give thanks. But our gratitude calls not for rest from our mission. There is no time to bask in the light of our governance. Now is the time to move from polity to pavement with a sense of urgency and intentionality.

As I turned into the Presbytery office on my first day back, t-shirts with names of Philadelphians killed by illegal guns lined the intersection of Gowen and Stenton Avenues, a monument to the slain installed by our neighbor congregation. Yesterday afternoon was spent with a local ministry whose congregation consists primarily of people experiencing chronic street homelessness, a reality many of us witnessed and were overwhelmed by while traveling to and from the Oregon Convention Center.  The threat of deportation of undocumented immigrants continues to tug at the hearts and sense of call of our local pastors, whose immediate neighbors are affected by unjust legislation and Supreme Court decisions.  Yet another act of terrorism, this time in Istanbul, has resulted in all-too-familiar crafting of public prayers and hashtags of solidarity. 

In the midst of it all, we have neither the time to revel in the strength of our ecclesiastical praxis nor become wearied by tired narratives of perceived denominational death. Stated Clerk-elect, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, said it best,We are not dying. We are reforming….church is not enough in this day. We need to set our aim on higher ground.” In his familiar prophetic cadence that will now shepherd our denomination, the newly-elected Stated Clerk reminded Presbyterians the same Spirit that resurrected Christ dwells within us as agents of God’s work of reconciliation and justice.  

This is the very agency we affirmed at the 222nd General Assembly.  This is the very agency that frames our policies and procedures.  This is the very agency that moves us from polity to pavement as we embody the Good News of Jesus Christ wherever we are post #GA222.  After all, that is the hope of our calling. 

*For a full report on action taken at the 222nd General Assembly: 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

On General Assembly as Pilgrimage to Portland

Several years ago I read a book that has forever changed how I travel:
No matter how short the distances and familiar the route you travel on a given day, you can do it as a pilgrim- and no matter how long the journey or how sacred its destination, it is possible to be nothing more than a tourist. Whether the journey is within your own backyard or takes you to the other side of the world, the potential is there for the greatest of adventures: a journey not only toward Christ but with him" (The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Lifexvii).
As Presbyterians from all around the country and across the globe descend upon Portland, OR this week for the 222nd General Assembly, we do so as pilgrims on a journey toward Christ. No matter the distance or if we travel by Tri-Met or Über, our movement throughout Rip City is wrapped in the possibility of the sacred. Our committee meetings and plenary sessions are fresh opportunities to discover the holy. 

What is beautiful about pilgrimage- you are certain to find familiar faces along the way. Whether discovering your seat on the plane is next to another pastor in your presbytery or bumping into an old colleague while on a morning run across one of Portland's many bridges, pilgrimage shrinks the distant destination into a local fellowship of the saints. It becomes a tabernacle for conversation, prayer, worship, and play. 

But the pilgrimage also dares us as travelers to move about with eyes wide open to both the holy and brokenness of place. As we gather this week in Portland, we embrace the beauty of the landscape while also aware that around nearly every city street corner are tent cities and persons experiencing homelessness for who knows how long. We sip fair-trade coffee at locally owned cafes while also walking past businesses that profit off addiction and the objectification of those stamped with the imago Dei. We celebrate a city committed to ecology and the environment, while also aware our travel from Philadelphia to Portland came at a cost to the creation. 

And as we discern and decide in community this week, we do so as fellow pilgrims committed to bearing witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ that is for both Portland and the whole world. We come here as those looking for the thin places where the ordinary and the holy collide, daring us to work towards the new creation that is our shared and collective hope and calling (Ephesians 1:18). We are nudged by the Spirit who has invited us to do more than speak about our polity and procedures, but also and especially embody them as the gathered and scattered saints drenched in the waters of our baptism. 

As our opening worship's Assurance of Forgiveness and Reconciliation reminded each of us:

Now turn to the cascading waters of baptism and toward one another:
God’s grace is overflowing,
Christ’s mercy is as endless as the rain,
Spirit’s power ensures deliverance.
Know that in Christ God was reconciling the world.
Be people of the water! Travel wet!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Don’t Stop Dancing: What My Daughter and Lin-Manuel Miranda Taught Me About Orlando

Just over two years ago, our daughter was diagnosed with polyarticular juvenile arthritis. This past weekend, several days after her last T-Ball game of the season, she performed in her first dance recital.

And she danced her little heart out. 

Prior to Sunday’s performance, we took this picture for the Arthritis Foundation- “I am stronger than JA because it doesn’t stop me from dancing.” 

Thanks be to God for the miracles of medicine, brilliant and compassionate doctors, and the will, courage, and strength of our beautiful child who dances in the face of her diagnosis. 

Indeed, JA does not stop her from dancing. 

But this past Sunday morning, the music stopped in Orlando around 2 a.m.

Dancing was replaced by running. The rhythm of community interrupted by the hatred of a killer.

There are few words able to capture what took place at the Pulse Nightclub. There may, in fact, be no words at all. 

Prayers, while still the best place to begin, are not to be the final stop for all of us who are beyond wearied by the frequency of mass shootings, brokenness of legislation related to the purchase of firearms (especially the AR-15), rise of terrorism through religious extremists, and the grotesque and hate-laced phobias of LGBTQ persons and other minority groups, which spawn these sorts of killing sprees. 

We can and must be better. 

More guns- not the answer.

Higher walls- not the answer. 

Ban of immigrants and refugees- not the answer. 

Religious intolerance- not the answer. 

But what is the answer? 

As Lin-Manuel Miranda reminded us last night:
"We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger / We rise and fall and light from dying embers / Remembrances that hope and love lasts longer / And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love / Cannot be killed or swept aside..."
Love is the only thing stronger than human confusion wrapped in the nothingness of hate. And when love frames our witness in the public realms of both religion and politics, we just may begin to see the change we all dream to be possible.

We may be able to keep dancing. 

“In every age and place throughout world history, there has always been also the laughter of children, the scent of flowers and the song of birds and similar things which cannot be affected by any confusion with nothingness. Nor have there been lacking poets and musicians and other noble spirits who have been able to look past or through the creation confused with nothingness and thus to perceive, and to make perceptible to others, its form as untouched by this confusion…” 
-Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV 3.2 p. 398.