The Sword at the Dinner Table

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 

-Matthew 10:34-36

Some of my friends are dreading Thanksgiving.

In these days between a mid-term election and the start of the holiday season here in the United States, a good number of my white friends and colleagues are not looking forward to dinner table conversations with their families. You see, they will sit at those tables with beloved family members who espouse views that are profoundly different from — and even hostile to – their views.

Most of these friends are Christian, as are their families. But everyone has disparate definitions of what it means to be Christian. For my friends, being Christian means the stranger is welcomed. It means that racism and prejudice are sins that are not limited to people who wear hoods and wield tiki torches, but that they touch even (and especially) those of us who name ourselves as “good.” It means that, no matter who is getting married, you bake the damn cake.

For these friends, following Christ means radical and lavish welcome, with a healthy dose of introspection and self-critique. It means something antithetical to what they see billed in the culture as Christian, where our leaders willfully err without apology and religious leaders make excuses for such behavior.

Their family members do not agree with everything (or sometimes anything) they believe. To entertain such conversations is to go beyond simply being exhausted by them; it may mean fractured relationships and the estrangement of one’s family members.

They are steeling themselves right now, because they know that they occupy a space of dominance in society, as do their relatives. They believe they have a responsibility to dismantle systems of dominance, and they know that perhaps the most fundamental way to do that is to do it within their intimate relationships. They believe the gospel of Jesus Christ requires this of them. This doesn’t mean they’re eager to do it. In fact, some may even talk themselves out of doing it.

It is in these times that I think about Jesus not as the Prince of Peace, but as the purveyor of a sword.

To follow Jesus in an authentic way sometimes puts enmity between us and the people we love. Those are the times we’re reminded that being a Christian is not about personal comfort. And I often want to fight with Jesus about this passage in Matthew. A sword, Jesus? Some more recent translations, perhaps equally disturbed by the apparent violence of the language, replace that word with “division,” which is fair, I guess. But the Greek μάχαιραν pretty clearly means sword.

The imagery seems violent because it is violent.

We need to understand how violence is experienced in the mind and body. In the book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, author and counselor Resmaa Menakem MSW, LICSW, S.E.P. talks about what happens in our brains around these matters. Our “deepest emotions,” including fear and anger, reside in what’s known as the “lizard” part of the brain. It’s named so because it is the part of our brain most similar to those of lizards, birds, and lower mammals. This part of the brain is incapable of reasoning and cannot use cognition, and the only commands it uses are rest, fight, flee, or freeze. Menakem points out that white supremacy “is always functioning in our bodies,” but it functions most powerfully in the lizard part our brains. This is the part of the brain that perceives danger, and danger “can mean a threat to more than just the well being of our body,” but also “to what we do, say, think, care about, believe in, or yearn for.” These experiences create trauma in our bodies whether the threats are existential or not. When the body doesn’t have a sense of safety, it “will do almost anything to establish or recover” it. That includes resorting to violence.

This is why Aunt Susan vehemently rebuffs you when you start talking about racial justice. She is legitimately in her body experiencing violence, even as we know there is no existential threat to her by you challenging her world view. Maybe that’s what Jesus was getting at with the sword imagery.

To use more lighthearted imagery, if you have ever cared for a sick, congested baby, you know that when you put the aspirator to her nose to clear her sinuses, she fights you. She jerks her head from side-to-side trying to evade the device. She cries and screams bloody murder. She may flail her limbs, arch her back, and even put herself in harm’s way as you lose your grip on her and nearly drop her. It’s a violent process, because she does not feel safe and is not going to submit willingly to something that is deeply uncomfortable, even if it will help her.

You still do it. Because babies who are congested are in danger of developing a host of other problems. Being able to breathe properly shouldn’t be optional.

To disabuse someone of destructive ideologies feels violent to all involved. It can threaten relationships. But what are our options?

As a person of color navigating white spaces, I can tell you the racism I have experienced over my life and career hasn’t been from the Klan or Neo Nazis. The racism that has most consistently and persistently visited me has been from “good” white folks – Christian folks – who resisted attempts to clear up their congestion. As King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the greatest threat to racial equity and freedom isn’t the people who are outright antagonistic toward us, but the “moderate” who “paternalistically believes [they] can set the timetable for another [person]’s freedom.” It’s these people working in education, healthcare, law enforcement, — indeed, the Church — standing in spaces that allow them to make decisions that impact other people who regularly pose an existential threat to people who look like me simply because they have been incapable of examining (or unwilling to examine) their privilege and biases. Forgive me if I have little patience for the people around them who kowtow to them even though they know better, because nothing about that seems fair to me.

But I’m trying. I’m praying for you. I don’t know the particulars of your family’s system. I don’t know what this is like for you. The pastor that is me is sensitive to the tenderness here.

But the person of color that is me faces existential threat if you don’t do it.

To be sure, they’re probably not going to listen to you. Trauma is difficult to sift through, and unless you’re a mental health professional and have the person’s consent, I wouldn’t advise trying. Maybe it’s not your job to “fix” your people. Maybe it’s your job to disrupt their congestion. Maybe your challenge to them plants a seed within them that you may never see sprout. Maybe it changes the trauma they carry and the ways they pass it onto others. Maybe the relationship eventually repairs. Maybe it doesn’t. And maybe that’s why Jesus told us to be prepared to let these relationships go if we really want to follow him. Maybe Jesus wants us to trust him with those people. I don’t know, but I do know that to avoid the violence of this particular sword is to allow existential violence to be visited upon people like me.

At any rate, white friends, I will not hold my breath for you to make these necessary disruptions. But I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how fully I’ll ever be able to breathe unless you do.

I’m Having a Hysterectomy…

I‘m having a hysterectomy exactly one week before Christmas. Did I mention I’m a pastor? Not that there’s ever any ideal time for such a significant medical procedure, but… seriously?

I’m having a hysterectomy and scrambling to get my house clean and organized before the surgery at a pace that (in the greatest of ironies) closely resembles the nesting phase expectant mothers go through late in their pregnancies.

I’m having a hysterectomy at about the age my mother had hers, and I realize how young she really was at the time.

I’m having a hysterectomy because I am young. In just a few short years, I’ve gone from one fibroid that caused me few if any issues to multiple ones that have left me anemic and depleted. I’ve looked at the different options, including getting them removed, and looked at the argument of Uterine Fibroid Embolization vs Hysterectomy, but as long as I’m pre-menopausal they will return and I’ve decided that my choice is the right one for me. If my mother is any indication, I’ve got about another decade before menopause.

I’m having a hysterectomy almost ten years to the date that I found out I was pregnant with my one and only live birth. She was my pregnancy after a miscarriage — my “rainbow baby,” as they say. The next year she played the baby Jesus in the church Christmas pageant. Learning she was coming was the best Christmas gift I’d ever received. It would be the last of such gifts.

I’m having a hysterectomy and I’m ambivalent about it. I always thought I would have more kids. Like my daughter, I’m an only child, but I always expected to have (as in, give birth to) more children than my mother. I now have to trade in those expectations for new ones. I’m sad about losing one set of possibilities, but hopeful for a new reality, one in which I’m healthy and whole in my body. It’s a reminder that grief and hope can and do exist in the same space. They are not allergic to each other.

I’m having a hysterectomy and rehearsing my new responses to the invasive family planning questions people often have for women. I’m leaning toward, “I would tell you to stay out of my uterus, but since I no longer have one…” Nah, that’s probably too curt. I’ll keep working on it.

I’m having a hysterectomy in 2017 when some people still don’t seem to know that hormonal birth control is a tool for so much more than just preventing pregnancy. People with power still look to restrict access to it. This is why we will always need comprehensive sex ed in schools and women who refuse to stop advocating for themselves.

I’m having a hysterectomy knowing that Black women disproportionately suffer from a number of gynecological challenges, but not knowing what to do with that. I speak the name of Saartjie Baartman, and recall the countless enslaved women whose horror gave way to modern gynecology.

I’m having a hysterectomy with extreme gratitude for the medical professionals — black women medical professionals, for what it’s worth — who’ve tried numerous treatments and explored myriad options, but ultimately let me decide what was best for me. I think that should be a right, not a privilege.

I’m having a hysterectomy and wondering what happens to the women who don’t have access to the kind of care I’ve had. What happens to the sister who suffers because she’s uninsured or unhoused? What about the underpaid woman who has to choose between food and feminine products? Why are we not talking about her? Why are we not better siblings to all of them?

I’m having a hysterectomy at the only time in the liturgical year when we celebrate pregnancy and birth. I’m still figuring out how I feel about that.

I’m having a hysterectomy as I guide the church I serve through dissolution. You couldn’t write a better parallel than this one. Just as I have done, they’ve made the decision that going on in their current state would only cause more harm in the long run. They are hemmorhaging resources (seriously, God, these parallels!). They’ve decided to let go of the what-ifs in favor of the what-could-bes. Nobody is thrilled about the decision to dissolve, but we still trust that God can bring new life out of a fallen seed. Again, grief and hope coexisting.

I’m having a hysterectomy. For many reasons, I covet your prayers.

The Message to the Margins: An Election Lamentation and Call to Action


The United States of America has elected Donald Trump its next president. It’s sinking in as I type that.

We (the royal “we”) elected Donald Trump, a beloved child of the Most High God.

We elected a man who has painted immigrants, migrants, and refugees with the broad brushes of “rapist,” “drug dealer,” and “terrorist.” He has used ableist language in his stump speeches. He has generalized African-American communities as “hell.” He has called for Third-Reich-like treatment of Muslims in America. He has bragged about sexually assaulting women, even as a married man. He has called women vile names, insulted their natural bodily processes, and rated them based on how attractive he finds them (or not). He has eschewed the common gesture of transparency to the American people by refusing to release his tax returns. He has incited violence among his supporters by promising to pay their legal fees should they be arrested for assaulting anyone who protests at his rallies. He has been incidiary toward the LGBTQ community, people of color, Muslims, immigrants — you name the community, and he’s insulted them.

He is, again, a beloved child of God.

Yet, instead of categorically rebuking his behavior at the polls, we rewarded it. With the presidency.

What, then, has our country said to its citizens of color? What has it said to LGBTQ Americans who are legitimately scared of having their rights and protections rolled back? What has it said to those Americans who worship in a masjid rather than a church? What has it said to Americans who are differently-abled? What has it said to the world?

To be fair, Trump appealed to a segment of the population who felt they’d been left behind because in many respects they had been. Certain industries have left America, possibly never to return. Wages for many remain stagnant. How he did this, however, is rooted in the age-old strategy of convincing them that the real enemy is the “other” — the migrant worker “taking their jobs,” the woman who wants to “take their guns,” the “political dissident” challenging civic authority and the inherent goodness of the country. It was a classic example of throwing stones and hiding hands. The working class struggles, but not because blacks dare to protest inequities in policing. And not because refugees want to come to America to escape terrorism in their birth lands. And not because people of the same gender want the legal rights that come with marriage. And certainly not because concerned mothers don’t want another school shooting in one of our communities.

Those of us in the margins who have been implicated in Trump’s rhetoric have long been concerned, yet perhaps some of us were naive enough to believe that America would never actually elect him, not after what he’s said. Surely, our fellow Americans would stand up for us at the polls. A “nation of immigrants” would never allow xenophobic rhetoric to pave a road to the white house. Women would surely categorically reject someone who would brag about grabbing women “by the pussy” (in fact, more than 60% of white women voted for him). Sure, some would take him seriously, but he’d never come within a stone’s throw of 1600. We were protected in this way.

Or so we thought.

And now, the margins are again reminded of their marginality (as if they needed to be). Immigrant families whose members are both documented and undocumented now wonder if they will be able to stay together, even as they have worked for years to do so legally. Blacks will wonder if the white nationalists groups that endorsed Trump without so much as a rebuke from the campaign will feel emboldened. LGBTQ people wonder not only about legal protections, but that anti-LGBTQ sentiment is further legitimized. While well-meaning souls call for love, calm, and unity, the rest of us have very real concerns.

We can no longer trust in “love” and “goodwill.” Love and goodwill should have never made this a possibility. Love and goodwill should have demanded better of this child of God and strongly condemned the vitriol that came from his mouth. Instead, that vitriol was validated.

How then will we respond? How will the church respond? No matter who prevailed in the election, someone would be grieving, for sure. But how will we wrap our arms around those who are not only grieving, but are genuinely scared? How will we step up to be in solidarity and offer protection and validation to those the electorate did not stand up for on Tuesday? What of the woman who was sexually assaulted and triggered/retraumatized by hearing Trump’s own words? How will she know her country — her fellow Americans — will stand for her?

Yes, we all know that God is sovereign. We are aware that we need to pray for those in office, whether or not we voted for them. We understand that any and all candidates are problematic and imperfect. But seriously, church, how are we prepared to minister to those who are frightened right now — and whose country has shown them that they have reason to be? How will we stand with and for them? It is not simply about one beloved child of God; it is about the behaviors and attitudes that have now been legitimized that have other children of God living in fear.

Finders Keepers: A 9/11 Sermon

Picture Credit: Washingtonian Magazine

Picture Credit: Washingtonian Magazine

The following is a sermon I preached at Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, Maryland on this, the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

Exodus 32:7-14

7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” 11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

1 Timothy 1:12-17

12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 15:1-10

1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Fifteen years ago today, we all lived through a horrible nightmare. As the news reached us that a plane had flown into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and then that a second plane had flown into the other tower, I remember watching my television in horror, my mouth agape and my heart in complete disbelief. It looked like something out of a movie, but it was on the news. It was real.

As NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reported from the Pentagon on what was unfolding in New York, he interrupted his own remarks to say that, though he didn’t want to alarm anyone, they’d just heard a loud blast there at the Pentagon.

I need you to know a few things about that moment. First, I had a connection with the Pentagon. My mother had been stationed there as an Senior Master Sergeant in the Air Force just two short years earlier. She’d served there throughout my high school and most of my college years, and so DC was my second home growing up. She’d recently retired, had moved back to southeastern Virginia, and was working in a civilian position with the Navy. We still, however, had close family friends who were working at the Pentagon. In fact, one of my mother’s best friends — a woman who is like an aunt to me — worked on the side of the building the plane hit, yet she happened to be in another part of the building at the time. What’s more, my mother, in her position with the Navy, was in the city that day on official business. It was clear now after not one, not two, but three planes had flown into epicenters of American economic, political, and military power, that we were under attack. As reports filtered in about car bombs in the city (which were later debunked), I asked, “What’s next?” The next question I asked was, “Where is my mother?”

I could not find my mother. I was a recent college grad who’d just moved to Northern Virginia looking for work, and I could not find my mother. Attacks were happening across the country, and I could not find my mother. Mobile phones were useless as the lines were completely clogged, and I could not find my mother.

I panicked. I hyperventilated. I prayed. I bawled.

I kept trying.

Finally, my mother was able to use a public phone and reach me by landline and let me know she was okay. She was at Bolling AFB, which, she assured me, was the safest place she could be at the time. I’d found my mother!

I’m mindful of the countless similar searches others carried out that day. Some reconnected with loved ones and rejoiced. Others were not so lucky. And yet others still never retrieved what they were looking for, as their loved ones remain missing.

I read Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep and the lost coin and I think back to that fateful day when I had ostensibly lost something that was precious to me, but found it once again. I think back on what that felt like. I think about the woman’s frantic search for that coin, the energy expended by her feverish house cleaning, and the anguish she must have felt. Was that her only source of income at the time? Was she risking starvation without it? Did someone dear to her give it to her? Whatever the matter, she needed that coin. It didn’t matter that she had nine others, because this coin still mattered. It, too, was valuable, and she would not rest until it was found. Moreover, when she did find it, that was cause for celebration. When the shepherd found that one sheep out of 100, that was cause for celebration.

Jesus’ teachings were attracting tax collectors and sinners. As a reminder, tax collectors, though agents of the state and officers of the law, were known for usury and exploiting the poor. They were state-sanctioned thieves essentially, using shakedown tactics and lining their pockets wherever possible. These fellows were known scoundrels. The Pharisees and scribes — the religious elite who lived and breathed Scripture — took note of how Jesus welcomed them. And they grumbled about it! Now, we love to beat up the Pharisees and scribes in these cases. I’m not going to do that. For one thing, I know as a person of faith and a religious leader I have more in common with them than I care to admit. For another, if I saw someone who persistently cheated me coming to Jesus and consequently being embraced, I would have some feelings about that, too!

Jesus, then, has to frame for us what a known sinner coming to hear the good news of forgiveness of sins through repentance feels like to heaven. It’s like the shepherd finding that lost sheep. It’s like that woman who finds that lost coin. It’s like that young woman finding her lost mom. Because no matter how many other things and people are still in their employ, no matter how many more sheep the shepherd has, no matter how many more coins the woman has, the ones that are lost still matter. They have not been written off, nor does it ultimately matter why they were lost. They are yet precious in the sight of the One to whom they belong.

The Greek word for repent, μετανοέω, means “after think.” It means to change one’s mind, to stop a course of action, thought and practice, and to turn around. To make a u-turn, so to speak, in one’s thoughts and behaviors. It’s interesting that we read in Exodus 32 about a time in which God apparently changed God’s mind. Our understanding of God often is that God is steady, unchanging, unflinching — that God does not change! But here, God actually models what it looks like to change one’s mind, not simply for the sake of changing it, but for the purposes of restoring right relationship. Moses appealed to God’s inclination toward relationship. Metanoia — thinking after the fact — is to reorient oneself when it becomes clear one has fallen out of right relationship with others.

If anything, a state-supported thief making a u-turn in life should indeed be cause for great celebration, because that means at least a few less robberies. A person being brought into right relationship with God means they have more right relationships with humans. And the peace which so often seems to evade us — especially on days like the one we had 15 years go — is a bit more in reach.

After the attacks on 9/11, the Rev. Jack Rogers who at the time was Moderator of the General Assembly and whom we lost just this July, said of that awful day, “This is the way it is every day in Jerusalem and Ramallah and many other places in the world.” Indeed, we are mindful that this is the way it is in Aleppo. This is the way it is in South Sudan. This is the way it is on the Southside of Chicago. God, we are lost!

What should be good news to us is that God is still in the business of searching. God is still looking for those wayward sheep who grazed themselves away from the pasture. It does not matter how or why we got lost; all God cares is they we are found. And nothing is more evident of that than a God who would become flesh and dwell among us, who would spend his life teaching, and yes, correcting us, who would submit to death just so it could be defeated, and who would endow us with power and a place in his continued work of finding the lost, teaching them a better way, and creating a more just and peaceful world. God intends to find us and keep us close!

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

“You Can Come” vs. “You’re Invited”


While at General Assembly, I was blessed to participate in a panel luncheon hosted by Covenant Network of Presbyterians. The theme of the luncheon was “Toward a Truly Inclusive Church.” In my portion of the discussion, I offered an illustration that one of the attendees encouraged me to share on my blog. So, I share it with you now!

Imagine that you are in a grocery store doing some shopping and you run into someone you know. This is someone you respect and like and who you’d probably call a “friend.” In his shopping cart, he has all manner of steaks, ribs, burgers, hot dogs, buns, and condiments, more than one family can eat in a single sitting. It’s clear he’s preparing for a big gathering. You remark about the contents of his cart and he says, “Yeah, I’m having a cookout tomorrow. Oh wait, you can come if you want!”

Now, what if, when he first started planning the cookout weeks ago, this friend had called you personally and invited you to his cookout? What if he had asked then if you had any dietary restrictions that might impact his shopping list? What if he’d had you in mind from the beginning?

In the first scenario, the invitation is passive and you are clearly an afterthought (perhaps not maliciously so, but an afterthought nonetheless). In the second scenario, the invitation is active. You are and have been part of the equation. There is intention behind the invitation, and that has been informed by your relationship to the friend.

When it comes to being an inclusive church (or any other institution), there is a difference between “you can come,” and “you’re invited!”

Often, we want people to come join with us in what we’re already doing. We have in mind what we want or how we expect a thing to look. Except, including others and sharing voice with others automatically changes how the thing will look. If you invite a vegan to your cookout, you might have to try a new recipe, which likely requires you to step out of your comfort zone. But you do so because not only is their presence important to you, but so is their participation. It is the same with the church that seeks to be inclusive. We must be mindful of the ways in which we extend our invitation. Switching metaphors now, how can we move from asking people to board the bus we’re already on and instead work together to figure out which is the bus we should be taking?

Since that luncheon, I’ve been thinking about passive vs. active invitation and inclusion. Who has been an afterthought to me? I hope that before every, er, “cookout” we plan, we ask this very important question. I don’t expect us to get this right every time. I certainly won’t. But it’s a habit we must form if inclusion is truly important to us.