Saturday, July 25, 2015

Fear, Humility, Lack, and Sorrow

The only daily devotional reading I've ever managed to keep regularly had been somehow related to the Desert Fathers. For about the last year, I've been using By Way of the Desert, a book of readings from the Abbas, paired (sometimes, I daresay, capriciously) with a verse or three of scripture. It's a good way for me to touch base with my desert heroes, some days revisiting old familiar sayings, other days finding things I'd either forgotten or overlooked before. Today's was the latter:

Euprepius blessed us with this benediction: May fear, humility, lack of food and Godly sorrow be with you.

What kind of blessing is this? Who thinks this is any kind of "good word" (benediction)?

Among ascetics, who practice fasting and hold humility as the highest virtue, it makes a bit more sense, but I'm not really interested in unpacking all that tonight. Not directly.

 The word that leaps out at me is "fear." I'm not even going to try to guess what Eupreprius was talking about some 1,500 years ago (give or take a few decades). I can tell you what I have experienced just this week alone.

I have heard two different women, African American, one I know, one I was with in a writers' workshop this afternoon and only just met, both expressing fear at driving their car, a heightened vigilance at their speed, at their use of turn signals, at  having all proper insurance paperwork and whatnot up-to-date and with them. The driving references are directly related, of course, to the recent (unlawful) arrest and in-custody death of Sandra Bland. If that had been the only incident in recent memory, they might not have felt quite this fearful, but the last year has seen so many high profile incidents of violent death on Black bodies by police officers, well, who can blame them? I'm a little afraid for my black friends and acquaintances, too. Add in the string of burned black churches, the shooting at a black church, and all the resistance to relegating the Confederacy to the history books---if we are to receive fear as a blessing, some cups are running over.

The Abbas probably received this word as a reference to "fear of the Lord" (a tightly packed phrase itself) or maybe even of sin and hell. They likely also received the blessing of humility, want, and sorrow as a way of practicing their faith that kept them mindful of other people's lack and loss and also of their fundamental reliance on God.

What I'm fairly certain of is that fear can only be a blessing if we choose to respect the things beyond our understanding, not if it is sourced in terrorist tactics. Humility is a virtue only if practiced by choice, that to be humbled by oppression is not humility at all. Fasting may bring blessings, starvation only desperation. Godly sorrow, if it does not bring us to empathy and action for others who weep, is not Godly at all and more likely than not results only in crushing a person's spirit.

There are any number of disciplines we might take on to help us in our faith, in deepening our relationship and reliance on God. Demanding any of these disciplines on someone lacking in freedom to do otherwise wrecks relationships of all kinds.

In light of these friends' and acquaintances' expressions of fear for their own safety in this current environment of racial terrorism, I cannot hear Eupreprius' benediction without feeling the need to amend with these words:

 . . . and woe to you if you visit any of these on another human being.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


It's the best of times. It's the worst of times.

While waiting for this past weekend's Pride Parade to start, I briefly chatted with the rector of our congregation. We were, of course, all high on the Supreme Court's decision to make marriage equality the law of the land, but I couldn't help myself. I noted that the previous two weeks had seen the best and the worst of the United States broadcast loudly across the world. 

I was referring to the horrific shootings at the prayer meeting in Charleston. (The shooter prayed with them for an hour before he did it! Seldom do I use "bad language" with as much conviction as I did when I heard that detail.)

My rector briefly spoke about the ways the Episcopal Church needs to make real confession and repentance of their part in racist America---something she repeated in the next morning's sermon, bringing up how the Episcopal Church was funded in part by slave trade in it's early American years.

We like to think this is something that happened long ago, but it's still playing out. I think the spiritual scars of something like slavery is passed on for a few generations.

Most importantly, it's not going to go away by good white people pretending they're past it, that they "don't see color," that they do their part by not actively oppressing anyone.

I know because I live most of my life trying to pretend all that. It's easy to do. When you're white, privileged, it's easy to pretend that everyone shares your ease in life. It's jarring to be reminded it isn't working.

It isn't working because a 21 year old man is still filled with hate for people of color, enough so to shoot up a church room full of them.

It isn't working because over half a dozen traditionally Black churches have burned down in the last two weeks.

It isn't working because people still defend flying the flag of a slavery nation, there are still people saying things were better before desegregation, there are still people wanting us to believe that slavery "wasn't that bad."

I don't know exactly what to do next, but I know everything done up to now isn't nearly enough. Everything done up to now isn't working.

Celebrating good things is a good thing. Celebrating marriage equality is good, and I do. I believe we should celebrate when we celebrate, without apology or hesitation. There are good things in the world.


And it's time to get serious about repentance. Confession and repentance, but particularly repentance. Confession is not much good if we don't actively turn away from the things we confess. Turning away from all the ways we adhere to the systems of terror and death and oppression and fear . . . this is not accomplished with simple confession and a word of forgiveness!

People mired in their hate are not going to hear this. I won't even pretend to be talking to them.

I'm talking to the good white people out there who get along fine with their Black co-workers and invite the Black kids to their kids birthday parties. I'm talking to the fine white people who really want to move into a post-racial society and think they can do so because they don't experience racism. I'm talking to people who just don't want to make anyone uncomfortable with all this talk about race, least of all themselves.

I'm talking to people like me.

It's going to be hard work. It's so easy to go with the flow of white privilege when you have it. It's so hard to speak up when you see racism in action before your eyes, so easy to pretend that maybe something else is going on, not just that person is getting the raw deal because they have more melanin than I do.

It's the best of times and it is also the very scariest worst of times. We're on a road to some kind of hell and while I endorse celebrating what is good in the world, we need to be careful that we don't party while the fires rise up around us, destroying us before everyone can celebrate.