Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Reading With the Church - A Rant and a Lament

This past weekend, I attended a symposium, celebrating the life of Pauli Murray, a Black, queer, feminist legal scholar and Episcopal priest from the last century. It was an enlightening and encouraging event and I recommend everyone look her up and learn more about her amazing life.

But that's not what I'm here to write about this week.

During one of the panels, a panelist brought up how she believed that we, as a culture hate reading, that clergy seldom realize how little their parishioners read (or, rather, how much time clergy spend reading in comparison to most laity), that there are endless resources for all of us if we just took the time to read. She brought this up in response to a question from the floor, I believe, and after she said all this she summed up with, "We don't know our history." (I probably have grossly misrepresented her words, which were eloquent, but I think this is the gist.)

I was floored that someone said this for me. She said it for me. She didn't know and maybe I should track her down and let her know, but it was terribly affirming for me.

Because I'm a reader.

I've always been a reader and while I know many people who are much more voracious readers, it's just a part of my identity. I don't know how to not be in a book. (Unless it's when I'm in a play, as I was recently, and then I'm reading and re-reading the script.)

And, honestly, I've experienced the church not reading and it always disappoints me.

You've experienced this, too, I bet. You may even have been the person I'm about to complain about. It's okay. Jesus still loves you and I probably (probably) do, too. But here we go.

There's a study group or book group and you come excited for the conversation.

And no one has done the reading. Even if it's a relatively short assignment (which, to me, is under 20 pages), most people have not done the reading. Still everyone shows up because they want to hear about what everyone else read.

Which is, you know, cool. I've achieved some sort of resignation about this.

But it's also disappointing. In my more bitter moments, I refer to the resulting conversations as "sharing the ignorance of the ages."

It's hard to come out as disappointed about these things because we live in a time where we're stuck between some people encouraging education and other people being anti-intellectual. There are the people who revel in expanding knowledge and there are those who dismiss the pursuers of knowledge as "elitist."

I don't pretend---education creates as many chasms between people as it builds bridges. I know that, have experienced that.

But more than movies or internet articles, reading books, getting a longer narrative, getting a broader view of any one subject, is how we become a knowledgeable people.

The panelist is right---it brings us a sense of history and where we fit into it.

There used to be a phenomenon that I'm not sure exists anymore, but communities used to form around bookstores. Feminists found each other at the woman-centric bookstore. The gay bookstore was a place for the newly coming out to find out about what other gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender folk experienced. Religious bookstores served much the same purpose. They were touchstones for communities, whether Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or . . .

Reading connects people, helps them build their own identities and creates empathy for people who have different identities.

And it plays into class issues. We have to be real about that, too. There is a reason for the stereotype of a well read bore, the ivory tower elite who is out of touch with people outside their income and education bracket. I've experienced it. I've done it. I've already said education creates chasms as well as bridges.

Look, as a Christian of the Lutheran heritage, I don't believe that being a reader has anything to do with the wider themes of grace, mercy, forgiveness, or salvation. I believe that we all have access to these regardless of, well, anything. Reading can, however, open up such themes, bring them into wider and deeper understanding.

I simply wish more people liked to read. I do believe reading opens up our hearts as well as our heads. It helps us experience things vicariously which can build empathy.  It can give you knowledge that helps you form not only opinions but informed opinions, which are much easier to put into action in meaningful ways. It expands our imaginations and helps us picture a better world.

We can appreciate who we are, what our heritage is (the good and the bad of it) and begin to see a path for building something upon foundations laid by those who have come before us even as we work to correct their mistakes. Reading helps us avoid the problem of sharing the ignorance of the ages.

(Unless, of course, you're reading crap books---but that's perhaps a different rant for another time.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Peace Love and My Wit's End

I didn't start Crumbs at the Feast to be a place of "inspirational" or even "devotional" writings. At least I've never thought of it that way. I don't know that I could succinctly define what I'm up to with this blog, but after 300+ entries, I must be up to something.

I have my worries about this world. Sometimes this blog is about those worries and sometimes I try to offer ways to think about them. At my best, I've hoped to offer some peace and maybe even a path to love.

But of course, the question always comes up: What does this mean?

As usual, I have to answer via negativa. Peace does not mean smooth sailing from here to the grave. Love does not mean warm feelings for someone dear to me.

I've often wondered about people who live under persecution, people who claim the name of Christ in situations where that was dangerous, life threatening. I've never felt that in my life. I may have occasionally felt slightly ostracized or simply looked at askance for being a practicing Christian, but I've never felt in danger. I've perhaps felt more ill at ease about being a gay man in certain situations and there are certainly places I don't consider going because I'm gay, but I also know it's easy to find my safe bubbles (which can just as easily pop, but I still have them).

Where do martyrs find peace? How do the persecuted love?

I'm ill at ease a lot lately. The political climate in the United States feels pregnant with something ugly and dangerous. If I were a certain kind of Christian, I would be safe. If I were straight, I'd be safe. Since I'm a white male, I can travel incognito for a time, but eventually I out myself, as both gay and the wrong kind of Christian. For the most part, white males are safe.

This does not set my mind at ease. I love many people who are not white males.

I find myself at my wit's end these days. I can't believe what I hear in the news. I can't believe the choices we have for our highest office in the land. I can't believe what I hear supporters of these candidates saying. It's really the supporters that worry me most, because without them the candidates would not be the candidates.

I do not think peace and love means what feel good gurus mean when they talk about them.

I think there are ample opportunities on the horizon and now here to discover what they mean.

If I'm sounding paranoid, I assure you I only mean to sound worried.

I leave you to ponder these words of a poem by William Alexander Percy. It has been set to a hymn tune or two, which is where I first encountered it. These words have always challenged and unsettled me.

They cast their nets in Galilee 
Just off the hills of brown
 Such happy simple fisherfolk 
Before the Lord came down

Contented peaceful fishermen 
Before they ever knew
The peace of God that fill’d their hearts  
Brimful and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
 Homeless, in Patmos died. 
Peter, who hauled the teeming net, 
Head-down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace, 
But strife closed in the sod, 
Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing– 
The marvelous peace of God.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Sometimes, it's hard to tell if we are getting more and more polarized or if the internet and social media just make it appear that way. And maybe that's beside the point.

The last week or two, with violence erupting once again in the U.S., as black men are mistakenly murdered by police and then the retaliatory shootings of cops in Dallas, it seems there's a lot of entrenched ideas about . . . well, everything.

Every conversation about racism is a powder keg, it seems. Perhaps that is built into the situation and it's a situation built, most certainly in the U.S., by white people. And so many white people reading this have already gotten defensive.

I'm not sure I can trace my thought process on this, but one night I was responding to a post on Facebook and observed that for some white folks, we hear the phrase "white privilege" and we worry that this means we're accused of being intrinsically evil and for others of us, we find it a fitting description of something we've experienced.

I worked for several years in retail. Those stories from black people who say they're often followed in stores just for showing up black? Let me confirm them. The very few times that I was told by management to keep an eye on someone, it was a black person. I'd ask why and be told they looked suspicious, which I figured probably just meant black and so I didn't follow them around because I had a smidgen of awareness. Never mind that more often than not, our shoplifters were blond. The point is that when I first heard the phrase "white privilege," it gave a name to my experience in retail.

I've seen a lot of posts in the last week arguing about "Black Lives Matters." I don't know about about you, but when I first heard the phrase, I got it. I understood what it meant. While so many people see an invisible "Only" in front of it, I understood the silent "Also" at the end.

But too many people can't seem to grasp the thought that white people are privileged in this society and that white people can still be good people. We can't seem to grasp that a slogan that lifts up black people doesn't push down anyone else.

Maybe a  good ol' Lutheran slogan us useful here.

Simul justus et peccator.

Simul - et. At the same time - and. We are justified and sinners. Not either/or. Both/and.

It occurs to me that I am both, anti-racism and a racist. I recognize and decry the sin of racism and I recognize that it is part of the fabric of my life, woven into how I move as a white male in a culture built by white men. I can say I have white privilege while recognizing the injustice in the system that gives it to me. I can say that black lives matter while knowing that I have benefited from a culture that has said that my life mattered more.

Paul tells us in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Romans "that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." I don't think he says this to guilt trip us and I would make all kinds of nuanced arguments about what "died for us" means, but it is fairly central to Christian theology that our salvation comes through grace, before any kind of deserving, without any kind of entitlement. We are justified---saved, if you will---while we are still sinners.

Accepting this takes some measure of humility. I don't want to be a racist, and yet if I reflect upon my meeting of certain categories of humanity---I still have initial reactions based on race. I recognize that is bad, it is a sin. As much and as often as I can, I try to confess that sin, if only to myself and God, and try to move past it.

After some internet conversations, I have mixed hoped about whether these few words will make a difference. Still, I type these words, hoping that they might open a crack for someone to understanding and love for people who are not our enemies.

Perhaps I type these words with the hope given to me by Abba Poemen:

Abba Poemen said, “Water is soft, and stone is hard. But if you hang up a bottle of water so that it drips onto a stone, it will wear it away. Thus it is with the Word of God. It is soft, and our mind is hard, but those who hear the Word of God often open their hearts to the fear of God.”

Simul - et. It is Gospel hope for us as we move forward in these troubled, violent times. Perhaps it is a window through which you can see white privilege and that black lives matter and maybe a host of other things as well.

It's a word that reminds us that we needn't be perfect ourselves before we speak out for justice. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Shooting People

I'm going to tell a story with as few details as possible, because it's not exactly my story to tell. It was told to me, and it haunts me.

Some kids were being a nuisance, getting onto someone's property, doing some damage, minor but still damage on land that was not theirs to mess up. This someone, a woman, was complaining to her neighbor about these kids, about how she'd asked them to stop and they continued anyway.

The neighbor said, "You have a gun, don't you?"

"Yes," answered the woman.

"Well, you know that if they're on your land without permission, you can shoot them."

Thankfully, the woman was appalled at the notion enough to not take the advice. She didn't want to shoot teenagers, she just wanted them to respect her property.

What I heard in this story is that we no longer, as a culture, assume that it's wrong to shoot people. It seems to me we actively look for reasons to shoot people, now. We look at the law for when we can shoot people rather than look for ways to avoid it.

A friend recently posted on Facebook, in response to a horrific family shooting in the suburbs of Houston, about how we "prepare our hearts" to shoot one another.

I think there are so many ways we prepare our hearts for violence these days, from the games we play and the entertainment we consume to the fear and hatred of the unknown that we feed and turn into political movements.

I don't want to ban guns, but I do want our hearts to change.

I don't want to censor anything, but I do want our hearts to change.

This business of shooting people is ultimately a heart issue and if I take anything from the Gospels  and the desert mothers and fathers, my 4th Century Egyptian teachers, it's that we prepare our heart for life, service, love.

But it seems we have much work to do. So many people are afraid and we know that love is hard when we're full of fear.

Still we teach: Love casts out fear.

We have work to do with recognizing the holy in each other. We look at differences and we get suspicious to the point of paranoia.

Still we teach: We are all made in the Image of God.

I keep saying I really only have one or two things to say. These two teachings of the Christian faith are basically it. We are made in the Image of God and when we see some difference in each other, that just may be an aspect of God that we can't contain in our own self---for surely no one of us holds the full Imago. Surely we have to share it, to complement one another. We need to set aside fear and suspicion to learn something of God that we don't find in ourselves.

We have to stop preparing our hearts for violence. We have to stop shooting one another. We have to be brave enough to love even when teenagers are messing up our property.

We have to prepare our hearts for life giving (said with more than one meaning) love.