Watching Our Step: A Blues for Michael Brown

 

Photo Credit: NBC News
Photo Credit: NBC News

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

-2 Corinthians 3:17

When I was a child, I would accompany my mother as she did her weekend shopping. I would always ask for a candy bar, and she’d buy it for me. But even after paying for it, she wouldn’t let me have it until we left the store. We had to be in the parking lot before I would even see that candy, if not in the car. I always wondered why that was. Why couldn’t I eat it right there in the store? We paid for it — er, she paid for it. As I got older, I understood why.

My story is nearly identical to that of my peers and elders. Whether we were taught not to put our hands in our pockets while in the store or to keep our receipts in plain view, these are the innate teachings of black and brown parents to their children: never give anyone a reason to suspect you.

The lessons  were taught without using many words. It was in the way mom would spend all day cooking before a family road trip so that we would have food for the voyage. That wasn’t just to save money, although it certainly accomplished that end. It was also because when she was a child pit stops could prove deadly for a black family. They learned to travel at night and keep it moving, stopping only when absolutely necessary. Of course she knew how much times had changed since she was little, but she also knew how much they hadn’t.

If you grew up black or brown in this country, you, too, were probably taught in some way to watch your step. You were taught how to smile at people to disarm them and let them know you were one of the “good ones.” You were taught the rules of the traffic stop for when (not if) you were pulled over by the cops. Your mother worried that your Afro or dreadlocks might keep you from getting that job you were interviewing for. She might have begged you to press your hair or wear a wig so you didn’t stand out as much. They taught you all of this to keep you safe, to make sure you had a chance. As proud and smart and wonderful as they may have been, they still knew that wherever they went, they had to watch their step.

Everywhere, that is, except for the few safe havens where they could be themselves. The barber shop. The front porch or stoop. And, of course, the church.

I always thought the reason African-American church worship is so characteristically uninhibited isn’t just due to our inherent “Africanisms” (sorry, Herskovitz), but because everywhere else in American society Black folks have to be so soul-crushingly careful. Not so with God. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Freedom to shout. Freedom to cry. Freedom to dance. Freedom to run. Freedom to speak. Freedom to mourn. Freedom to celebrate. Freedom to be.

And it was only fitting that this freedom would spill outside of the church doors and into the streets of New York City, Montgomery, and Chicago. It was only fitting that it would ring out on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and reach the doors of the White House. But even as it rang and even as we marched, we would learn that we still needed to watch our step.

Rodney King taught us.

Yusef Hawkins taught us.

Amadou Diallo  taught us.

Sean Bell taught us.

And the lesson continues. It continues on the front porches of private citizens who too quickly assume the worst of someone who comes to them in need of help. It continues on BART train platforms. It continues on the sidewalks of a gated community in Sanford, Florida. It continues in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.

Trayvon, Oscar, Rekia, Jordan, Renisha, Michael — I’m so sorry. If only teaching you could have saved you.

Howard University students standing in solidarity with Michael Brown. Photo credit: Urban Cusp.
Howard University students standing in solidarity with Michael Brown. Photo credit: Urban Cusp.

Suicide, Depression, and the Church

Depression

As the world reels over the apparent suicide of Robin Williams, the harsh realities of mental health are once again in front of us. And I am, once again, keenly aware of how unprepared some of us in the church are to deal with it.

Historically, the church has had a very muddy relationship with mental illness, addiction, and suicide. To its credit, the church has begun in fairly recent years to start addressing these realities holistically and step away  from the antiquated ideas it had once promulgated from its pulpits. But some of those ideas and attitudes linger, and it will take us some time to purge of them completely.

If you grew up in the church hearing that suicide is a sin, here’s why:

In the 4th and 5th centuries, a sect of Christianity called the Donatists (named after bishop Donatus Magnus) flourished in North Africa. They were known for their staunch opposition to any Christian who had formerly renounced the faith in the face of widespread persecution by Diocletian and now wanted to come back to the fold. Notably, they believed that suicide was a form of martyrdom, and that it would be better for a Christian to kill oneself than to be apostate. In his book, City of God, Augustine of Hippo vehemently opposed this view because in his estimation suicide was a violation of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” And since you couldn’t repent of such a sin if you were dead, there could be no salvation for you. It’s Augustine’s influence on this subject that has most heavily informed the church’s approach to suicide for centuries.

While Donatism was indeed heresy, Augustine’s conclusion actually misses the mark. The Hebrew word used in that commandment, ratsakh, refers to unlawful killings such as premeditated murder which produce “blood guilt.” It does not refer to killings made in self defense, but killings that betray the fabric of the community. The commandment addresses righteous interactions with other human beings, not one’s own self. In fact, Talmudic understanding of this commandment is that murder can emcompass public shaming, slander, and personal attacks. Jesus himself even spoke about this. It is not a commandment against suicide.

That is not to say that we should encourage people to kill themselves. But what we have done is emcumbered people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts and the family members of people who have committed suicide in the most heartless of ways — and we’ve used God to do it.

Even as the church strives to become more aware of suicide and mental illness, there is still a tendency to dismiss illnesses such as depression and anxiety as indicative of a lack of faith. Schizophrenia and psychosis are even labeled as “possession” in many communities. As a person of faith, I do not discount the connection between body and spirit. I believe they are inextricable. But when it comes to mental illness, why do we ignore the “body” component? These are physical illnesses with identifiable physiological causes. If a sister or brother in our midst is diagnosed with cancer, we may pray for them, but we also fully expect them to see their oncologist. Too often, we expect people with crippling depression and anxiety to just “pray it away.”

Suicidal people are not selfish. They are sick. And what kind of church would we be if we turned our back on the sick?

When I dealt with crippling clinical depression years ago, I wish I could say the church took me more seriously. But the truth is the only people who cared for me holistically were my psychiatrist and my therapist. I don’t fault the church for this; they simply didn’t know any better. And the fact is society as a whole, both religious and secular, could stand a better education in this matter. But because so many people come to their faith communities when they are struggling with these things (because who else is going to support you and sit with you in your grief like your faith community?) we need to be particularly prepared and armed with life-saving information and understanding.

The sad reality is we won’t be able to save everyone. We won’t be able to stop every single person from completing suicide, even in the church. But we could be agents of healing for those who are struggling. We could be the reason someone seeks help. We could offer a hand to hold on the path to wholeness. We could be that lone point of light for the person who is in their last days before a completed suicide. And we could be the arms that wrap around the family members who try desperately to get their loved ones help to no avail, and are eventually left behind to pick up the pieces. We can at least do that.

Resources:

 

The Church Sex Abuse We Don’t Talk About

ashamed

This week I read an article from Samantha Pugsley in which she bravely recounted her upbringing in the church and how it nearly ruined her sexually.

No, she was not molested by a minister or trusted adult (at least I hope not). She, like nearly all youth in the church, was taught that sex was reserved for marriage and that she should save herself for her husband. She was one of many young girls who took the “true love waits” pledge, stating that they would abstain from sex, sexual thoughts, and anything that would lead to sexual arousal.

This would be all fine and good, except that for Samantha, she was taught from a very young age that her identity in Christ was directly linked to her sexuality and her sex life, so much so that she came to define who she was by it. She was taught, perhaps not intentionally, that conversion equaled sexual abstinence. That was the hallmark of her faith — being a member of the V-Squad. Otherwise, who was she in Christ? And who was she at all?

She’d spent a lifetime being taught that sex was essentially bad, or at least  something about it was. So when she finally lost her virginity — on her wedding night — she couldn’t resolve that what she had done was good, natural, and okay. She still felt dirty.

Thankfully, she has a loving, supportive husband, but she still isn’t able to reconcile being a sexual being with being a Christian. While this saddens me deeply, I can’t help but understand it. It’s the story of so many of us who grew up in the church — especially girls. And it’s why I’m leery of so-called “purity culture,” not because I think that abstinence is bad (please, God, let my daughter wait!), but because I know that this is an area in which the church has likely done more harm than good. Much of these notions the church has had about purity, virginity, and girls’ bodies are profoundly (if unintentionally) abusive. It truly is a form of sex abuse in the church that no one talks about — and is, in fact, often sanctioned by the church.

Here are my issues with “purity culture” and the environment in which Ms. Pugsley was raised:

1. Abstinence is presented as a means of justification. Girls are taught to keep themselves “pure” because in doing so they show themselves righteous before God. Speaking from a Reformed perspective, the only thing that justifies us before God is grace. Justification is God’s purview. We can’t earn grace by what we do or don’t do.

We communicate to these girls that if they give it up before marriage, they are somehow ruined or spoiled. Should a person slip up and find themselves outside of the will of God, they need to know they are not ruined. God’s grace and love covers them. I think the church is so afraid of their youth making poor decisions that they go to great lengths to keep them away from certain behaviors and attitudes. But they (and we) cannot afford to live without grace. We will all fall short. Of course, that’s not an excuse to do whatever we want, but we need to remember that we can never “ruin” ourselves so badly that we’re out of God’s redemptive reach. And if we somehow could, then that means God is not omnipotent, Christ is powerless, and there is no reason for us to believe. Abstinence that is done out of a desire to be justified has missed the mark. Abstinence should be practiced as an expression of faith.

2. There’s an inordinate emphasis on sex life. In exercise circles, there’s a saying: Friends don’t let friends skip leg day. Otherwise, your upper body is ripped and strong, while you’re lower body is scrawny and weak. Putting this much emphasis on sex is like spiritually skipping “leg day.”

When your identity in Christ is so heavily connected to your sexuality, other areas of life remain untouched. What about in your giving? Your loving? Your service? Your embrace of the outcast and the downtrodden? Discipleship is all-encompassing; it doesn’t stop at what you do with your genitalia. Why the hyper-focus on “lusts of the flesh,” and even then only certain lusts?

3. It’s inequitable. Somewhere in America, a purity ball for girls and their fathers is being planned. Meanwhile, countless sons are being ushered off to football practice, where the locker room will be rife with lewd jokes and sexual innuendo while no one so much as bats an eye. We do not communicate abstinence and sexual responsibility in the same way to boys and girls. Girls are taught to save themselves. Boys, not so much. Girls are taught how not to get raped. Boys are not taught how not to rape. While it doesn’t end at the church, the church bears a lot of responsibility for dissonant messages our boys and girls receive concerning sex.

4. Girls are unfairly promised that their lives will be better for waiting. Waiting to have sex can keep us from a sundry of problems, including having children we can’t support, catching diseases we can’t get rid of, and making poor choices in partners who really want nothing more than to get off. But simply because we do things “God’s way” doesn’t preclude us from difficulties. After all, the rain falls on the just and the unjust, right? Jesus even told his disciples that they would have some troubles. Following God doesn’t mean that life will be all rainbows and butterflies, and we need to stop suggesting this to our kids. We would do better to encourage them in the knowledge that God is near to us especially when we’re brokenhearted.

And to be clear, you can wait until marriage and still marry a jackass. That doesn’t necessarily mean you did something wrong. It means you married a human being who, just like you, is in constant need of God’s grace and mercy.

5. Sex should be private. We look sideways at a person who talks constantly about their many sexual conquests. Why, then, should we parade virginity? Encourage it, yes, but parade it? When we do this, we put the weight of the world on these girls, so in the event that they fall — or even if they wait, as Ms. Pugsley did — the crash hurts a million times more.

Putting girls on these pedestals of purity fails to communicate to them what intimacy means. Intimacy means it’s between you, your partner, and, of course, God. Not your daddy. Not your church. Everyone doesn’t need to know when the proverbial cherry has been popped. Your body does not belong to us. Open conversations about sex are necessary, but that doesn’t mean you have to be put on display, whether you’re virginal or wanton. I think if we were more concerned about a true conversion of the heart rather than simply regulating actions, more of our young people would wait — and for the right reasons.

Ultimately, I wish healing for Ms. Pugsley and the legion of people who have been sexually damaged by both church and society. I’m sad that we use sex to bring people — girls and women in particular — into subjection, when it was always meant to be a gift to be enjoyed. But I hold onto hope that we can and will get it right one day.

How do you think we could do a better of job of addressing sexuality in the church?

Don’t Expect Me to Grow Your Church

Photo Source: The Central texas Conference of the United Methodist Church
Photo Credit: The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church

When someone is in the market for a call, he or she will invariably come across a number of church profiles that indicate a desire for a pastor to who will help their church grow. I think this is akin to a Hebrew family in Goshen painting their lintel and posts with the blood of a lamb;  it’s a sure-fire way for your church to get passed over.

This is a classic red flag for anyone who’s been in ministry for longer than a minute because it suggests your church might have unrealistic expectations of what a pastor does or can do. We get it — for whatever reason your church is clearly not happy with its size. Maybe numbers have dwindled in recent years (as is the case with most churches). But instead of doing the hard work of looking inwardly and outwardly for why this may be happening and maybe even accepting this trend may be around to stay for a while, you are looking for a person in whom to put an inordinate amount of hope and to ultimately blame when their presence doesn’t miraculously usher in a new era for your congregation.

This expectation puts the onus of church growth solely on the pastor. To be clear, it is God and God alone who gives the increase, but that increase comes at the heels of some intentional planting, watering, and tending on the part of the entire community of faith. A church can have the most gifted pastor in the world, but all those gifts cannot take the place of the congregation. Liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” In other words, the people must work! It’s simply unfair to expect a pastor to initiate and complete a work that could have at least already been started by the congregation.  A relationship between a pastor and a congregation is one of mutual ministry. Particularly in my tradition, we are all ministers. Pastors/Teaching Elders may be called to a particular service, but the work of ministry belongs to us all. No congregation should forget that, and no congregation need put its life on hold waiting for Superman — or Wonder Woman.

Yet, I understand that sometimes what’s needed to start said work is effective leadership, and I respect a church that can recognize it has that need. Even still, it can be unrealistic of a congregation to expect growth if it’s been reluctant to adopt practices that would open the door for growth. Definitely do not expect a pastor to grow your church if:

  • You’re not already consistently, intentionally, and lovingly inviting your friends, neighbors, and family to come — even if you think they’ll say “No.”
  • You’re not willing to come to church more than once a week when necessary.
  • You’re not willing to enter into deeper relationships with one another. Just because you’ve served coffee and pastries alongside each other after church for years doesn’t necessarily mean you know each other.
  • You’re not willing to welcome the new people who come through the doors as they are, not as you want to “help” them be.
  • You insist on harping on what the church doesn’t have and can’t do instead of what God has and can do through us. No church can grow from an attitude of lack.
  • You intend to bristle at any suggested change, small or large, because, “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • Your church has had contentious relationships with pastor after pastor — and somehow it’s never  the congregation’s fault.

Not an exhaustive list, but you get the picture. And even if a church does all of this and more to encourage and welcome growth, it still may not see a growth in numbers. Perhaps the growth comes from within in the form of more mature and effective Christians. Greater numbers don’t indicate that a church is effective. Jesus did just fine with only twelve dudes and a handful of women!

If a church grows at all, whether spiritually or numerically, it’s because the entire congregation has caught the vision of what it means to be community, not a tribe. Tribes are necessarily exclusive and rigidly have their boundaries and cultural norms set and agreed upon with little interest in deviating from them. Some churches, whether they know it or not, are tribes.

Simply put, your church won’t necessarily be rescued from decline simply because you called the right person. The Church already has a Savior, and I assure you he’s not currently looking for a call.

Blessed to be Broken

The following is a sermon I preached on Sunday, August 3, 2014 — the day I announced to the church that I had resigned from my position and would be leaving them at the end of the month. I thought the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the day was a timely reminder that brokenness is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, God uses brokenness beautifully and without fail.

kitkat

“Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.”

— Matthew 14:19

When you think of the word “blessed,” what normally comes to mind?

Do you think of being in a place in your life where everything is running smoothly? Does it mean that things are perfectly in place, or at least on their way? Does it mean that you and everyone around you is healthy, happy, and prospering? Does it mean your career or your business is going well? Does it mean your friendships are in good places? Does it mean your love life is en pointe? Your marriage is thriving? Your schooling is going well?

I think if any of these things are in place, we would consider ourselves blessed. If we were to Tweet or Facebook about anything like this, we would probably include the hashtag “#blessed.” In fact, I know some of you who have!

But is being blessed an end to which we should strive? Is it a final destination? Do we work, pray, and work some more to arrive at the land of “blessed”? Or is being blessed just the beginning? Is it a precursor to something else? Rather than being a destination, is it instead a starting point? What if something comes after being blessed?

I would submit that being blessed is not in fact a destination; is only part of the story. It is just a beginning of any story that makes up the anthology of our faith journey. Whenever you sit back, take inventory of your life, and conclude that you are blessed, just prepare yourself. Something will come after that.

I notice in the gospels that Jesus has a habit of blessing things and then breaking them. Our text this morning is a prime example of that. Jesus thought he was going on vacation, but it turns out a lot of people needed him. But instead of saying, “I’m taking a break, leave me alone,” he had pity on the crowds and healed their sick. But it was getting late, and the disciples, being the pragmatists they were, suggested that Jesus send them away so they could get some food. Jesus had another plan — they would feed the crowds with the two little fish and five measly loaves they had among them. And he began this dinner party by blessing the loaves. Then, he breaks them.

Unless they were gigantic loaves, theologically, I must deduce that the only way five loaves of bread could feed 5,000 men (not including the women and children) is because they were blessed. They were first lifted to heaven and blessed, but even though they were blessed they were still useless. In order to be useful, the loaves had to be broken. They had to be broken so that they could be distributed to all those people. They had to be broken so that the blessing could be shared.

It’s good that we folks of faith know that the only way we can do the things we do is because of God’s blessings. It’s important to understand that if we enjoy any measure of health, financial security, career success, or any other such enjoyments, it’s because we’ve been blessed to do so. But being blessed by itself is useless. We must then be broken.

A story comes to mind of when I was in 5th grade. One of the school teachers was about to go run an errand and our teacher asked her to bring back a Kit Kat bar for her. So after our teacher stepped out of the classroom, we children had the idea to sing the Kit Kat jingle when she came back. We didn’t really want the candy. We just wanted to make her laugh. So when she came back in the room, we all broke out in song.

“Give me a break. Give me a break. Break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar.”

Thinking we were so clever and funny and seeing her smile, we counted it as a success. But then something happened. She actually got up from her desk and proceeded to walk around the classroom and break us each off a piece of her Kit Kat bar! You should have seen the looks on our faces! And then she returned to her desk and ate the last piece just as contently as if she’d had the whole thing to herself.

I remember being amazed because as a ten-year-old chocoholic, there’s no way I would have done the same thing! Even at 35, I’m not sure I would share my chocolate with any of you! But she did, and she seemed happy about it, not sad about all the chocolate she was going to be missing out on.

I think we’re reluctant to be broken because we’re afraid of what we’ll be missing when it happens. When we’re broken in our relationships, we’re afraid of missing out on the times we used to share with those people. When we’re broken financially, we’re afraid of losing what we worked so hard for and what God blessed us with. When churches are broken — and they often are — we’re afraid that it will mean decline and the end of the faith tradition.

But the fact is God is especially good at using broken things. It’s in that brokenness that God can spread you out among those who need you. Perhaps losing a job means you can now volunteer at the local soup kitchen, or be more present with your family and friends. Perhaps a fractured relationship means that new ones can be fostered. Perhaps a major disappointment means you can comfort someone else in the midst of their own. God does not break things to leave them broken. Being broken is actually a sign that you’ve been blessed, and now the blessing’s reach has to go beyond you.

That was Jesus’ pattern; to bless things only to break and distribute them. That was the path of his own life, to be broken on the cross only to get up on Sunday will all power in his hand. And with that in mind, thank God for brokenness! Thank God that he was crushed with pain. Thank God that he was wounded for our transgressions. Thank God that his punishment made us whole, because without his wounds — his brokenness — we could not be healed!

Brothers and sisters, wherever it may occur, do not fear the brokenness. Yes, it is uncomfortable. Yes, it presents some uncertainties. But trust in God’s willingness and ability to work in it. Trust that there will be beauty for ashes. Trust that where there is weeping one night, joy will indeed come in the morning! Trust that God will never leave nor forsake you. Trust that you are blessed — even and especially when you are broken! Amen.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

it's over

Yesterday I announced to the congregation I serve that after this month I would no longer be their Pastoral Assistant.

For the past three years I have served this church in a non-ordained position as its English ministry leader. I came there as an Inquirer and the church walked with me as I became a Candidate and prepared for my ordination exams. It celebrated with me when I passed those exams and was certified ready to be examined for ordination. There was a time when I thought I would be ordained there, but after many months of delay and disappointment, I felt the Holy Spirit calling me to move on — without another call or back-up plan — for both the church and myself.

Having never left a church before, I had no frame for reference for what this would be like. Needless to say, this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.  You don’t stay somewhere for three years and not develop abiding connections. You don’t provide care for that long without actually caring. You don’t lead the mission of a ministry for that long without becoming invested in their direction and their potential.  You try to dry their tears as you hold back your own. Even typing up my official resignation letter was excruciating. Just because it’s the right thing to do doesn’t mean it’s the easy thing to do.

But one thing is for sure: I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t rest on the relationships I’d built when the Holy Spirit had already said enough was enough. I couldn’t prolong the inevitable and make it harder for all of us later. A dear mentor put it perfectly in perspective for me when he told me that as ministers and leaders, our compassion makes us vulnerable. The very compassion that helped move them forward was now keeping all of us stagnant, and I couldn’t abide by that. Leaving was hard. Staying would have been harder.

In all of it I have peace. I have peace knowing that I loved them as Christ loves me as much as God empowered me to do so. I have peace knowing that our work there set the ministry on a good path. I have peace knowing that no one could question my integrity or my motivations because I gave everything I had and much of what I didn’t for the ministry (though I admit the wisdom in giving so much was at times questionable, but at least lessons were learned and it came from a good place). I have peace knowing that I did exactly what God called me to do there — not to exclude leaving.

And I have peace knowing that, while this chapter is coming to a close, the Great Author has not finished writing our story.

If you’re reading this, I covet your prayers. I covet your prayers for a peaceful transition for all of us as guided by the Holy Spirit. Pray for the broken hearts and disappointed souls, that God would mend and encourage them. Pray for my leadership as I now prepare them for my departure and try to focus their gaze forward. And pray for all of us in ministry, for the courage and wisdom to make the difficult and painful choices that are often necessary for us to move forward.