Piece 35: Black Church

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Much of the spiritual tension and growth I have navigated as an adult has been wrapped up in reconciling my joyous, liberating black church upbringing with my being dunked into fundamental evangelicalism as a young adult. The rough transition from one faith tradition to another felt very like being excited to be baptized only to find the water too cold and the preacher unaware that you can’t breathe underwater so he holds you down so long you begin to panic. So when you finally emerge for air, you feel gratitude and joy – but it takes you awhile to recover so you can revel in the exuberance of the moment because you are quite literally focused on breathing.

Photo by nappy from Pexels

The black churches that taught me to memorize John 3:16, that baptized me and drew me out of my introverted shell in Sunday school, that put me in the choir and let me lead a song – is a place of uninhibited expression of oneself. A place where service would always go long, so Nonnie was ready and willing to let me nap on her lap and was sure to keep a few peppermints in her purse to help me stave off lunch hunger. A place where Youth Sunday once a month would highlight our dance group(s), mime troupe, drill team, and choirs. A place where each Sunday’s altar call might see the same handful of folks coming down front for prayer – where each time they would be welcomed and prayed for, whether they verbalized their needs or not.

It was a precious and very specific place where I was seen and loved, where a song might move me to tears or a sermon bring me to my feet, where I might rub a friend’s back and fan her when unspoken emotions overcame her. Even now that I have attended the same Episcopal church for 18 years, I believe I could walk into any given black church and feel instantly welcomed and at home, knowing the order of service by heart, and embracing a space that welcomes my heart and my humanity. A place to release the stress built up from the burdens we carry from day to day – not because we “lean not on our own understanding,” but because we can sing, dance, shout, weep our woes aloud, and know that our spiritual siblings will understand our struggles implicitly, and support us in the fullness of our lived experience. A place of solace and catharsis. Of shared joy and pain. 

It’s a feeling that for me has been unmatched by any other church I’ve been in.

So I am so thankful that PBS and Henry Louis Gates presented a mini-docuseries that provided a survey of black American church history. I watched with rapt attention, took copious notes, and sat glued to my spot for four hours to try and absorb our history. To try and understand the beautiful, mysterious, deeply affecting figure that is the black church. How have my people maneuvered through being forced from our continent, so that we could be beaten and broken in forced bondage, and created and sustained an institution that sees us, knows, us, loves us, and provides omnipresent hope for our bodies and our souls?

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

I’m astounded by the beauty of the tradition we have built.

One of the most lovely and moving characteristics of the black church is her music. The organist plays softly while congregants mill about, greet each other, and find their seats. Deacons intersperse their opening prayers with call and response hymns. Choirs process, sing, and then remain at the ready to back up the preacher as he draws his sermon to a close. Song ushers in the altar call, beckoning those who will to come to Jesus while they have time. Music is the constant undercurrent throughout service – pausing briefly for the beginning of the sermon. 

Songs assure us that our living is not in vain, remind us that Jesus is more precious than silver and gold, and extend to us the blessed assurance that since the world didn’t give us the joy we have, the world can’t take it away.

I hope that you will watch this two-part series from the brilliant mind of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. And I hope you will sit for an hour with this playlist I’ve curated to draw me back to one of my first loves: the black church. Each and every track holds with it a precious memory of the unique, glorious place where I first became cognizant of my love for Jesus.

As you watch and listen, I hope you will reflect on these questions: 

  • What are your earliest memories of being loved, held, and seen? What sounds, smells, or textures are inextricable from those first moments of feeling truly accepted as you are?
  • If you are a person of faith, how still or vibrant was the church of your earliest years as a believer? When you feel far from God, what anchor from these early faith days holds you fast?
  • When you think of the terror that has been inflicted on the black church in this country time and again, how do you imagine you might feel if the black church was that first place of faith for you? Would you feel safe to worship in the space where you truly felt at home?
Photo by Michael Morse from Pexels

I hope that learning about the black church blesses you as it has me. And I hope you find yourself embracing the tension that arises when we realize how segregated our churches are, why that is, and what the way forward may look like for us all. I hope, as always, that you will meet me back here again next week, so we can keep constructing a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

Or, as my pastor back home would say, “The doors of the church are open. Won’t you come?”

Mary, Did You Know?

Epiphany descends upon the Christmas season while lights still twinkle, and the joy and wonder of the incarnation reside spaciously in our hearts. The arrival of the maji affirms Christ’s holy identity, confirming that this baby is the One we’ve been waiting for.

Jesus is born into a world that is already hunting for Him. Christ’s lineage and sex placed Him squarely in King Herrod’s scope. His parents lived the first years of His life in hiding, away from their Nazareth home, in hopes of safeguarding their beloved Son’s life.

In all the teaching I’ve heard about Jesus, our Savior’s cultural identity as a marginalized person – can anything good, after all, come from Nazareth – has been used as a footnote to underscore His holiness while simultaneously setting aside as a microscopic footnote the pain and frustration of this central aspect of His human experience. Furthermore, church teaching tends to skim right past the untold number of innocent children murdered as Christ Himself was highly anticipated and hotly pursued. Insodoing, the church at large has managed to construct a white savior who is glorious in His excruciating agony on the cross without explicitly highlighting our Savior’s state-sanctioned lynching, which followed a lifetime of being pursued by both church and state because of the plain fact that He stated unflinchingly the truth of who He was.

One might say Jesus was killed for living out the truth that His life mattered.

I set myself up here as no spiritual or theological teacher, no seminary degree holder, no learned divinity student. Rather, I offer my perspective as an alternative to the lies of white supremacy, white saviorism, and “holy” hope for the sweet hereafter in place of present-day justice and truth, that the church has been complicit in underscoring time and again.

Truly, is it any wonder that we may find ourselves unable to connect the cross and the lynching tree, when the gross brutality of lynching has been almost entirely left out of the Savior narrative espoused in too many of our pulpits?

I want to draw your attention to the plight of our Holy Mother, a plight similar to that shared by black and brown mothers all over this country. For so many of us, from the moment we are aware of that missed period, even before pregnancy is confirmed, we hold within us the polar opposite emotions of joy and terror. The miraculous life we may be growing within us – all the blessing and anticipation we hold with open hands – will enter this world one step behind white babies because of skin color:

Photo by Julia Volk from Pexels

When our sons are young school-agers walking with their daddies and struggling to get their little legs to keep pace, they will be pushed by a white stranger who is then defended by yet another. 

When our sons are preteens, they cannot play at a park without risk of being murdered by police officers who will not be jailed for their crime. 

When our sons are teens, they cannot walk to a store for tea and Skittles without being accosted and killed by a man who has been told by authorities to cease his pursuit. 

When our sons are grown men and we have preceded them in death, they will call out to us as police officers hold off crowds of onlookers who record their lynching on their phones, horrified that a uniformed protector of peace and enforcer of justice is cutting off their ability to breathe by putting his knee on our son’s neck

All of this not because our children are criminals, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, but because they exist in black skin, without apology, without shame. Their existence is enough.

Did Mary know all of this? Did she hold all these truths in her heart as she hunkered down in a barn to give birth to our Lord? Did she weep tears of anxiety when she smelled His newborn baby head smell, trying and failing to stave off imaginings of the trouble He would have in his life?

The obvious answer is she did, and yet – too rarely do we turn our eyes to her example of nurturing our Lord throughout His fraught human life, too little attention do we pay to the human side of our Savior’s life.

And thusly do we continue to miss the true meaning of doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly, and thereby welcoming the new thing God is doing.

Piece 24: Go Tell it On The Mountain

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Last week, I shared a reflection on one of my all-time favorite musicals: The Wiz. I recounted the connection I feel between one of this musical’s most iconic songs and the sense of connectedness I feel to my own family and home. Then I asked about how inclusive your family gatherings are, how welcomed you work to ensure your family feels. For me, last year was our first time to host our family for Thanksgiving at our house. It was wonderful, relaxed, and restorative. The kids had crafts I’d picked up for them, there were movies to be watched if that was desired, the adults enjoyed great food and conversation, and we got a whole family pic in front of our porch before following up with a cousin pic of the kids tossing autumn leaves in the air. 

I’ll miss that time together this year, as our gathering has necessarily shrunk in size due to COVID concerns. But I cherish the memories we made together and look forward with great anticipation to the next time we can safely gather.

In the same vein as home, for me, is church. Gospel music is an integral part of the black Baptist (not Southern Baptist) church tradition in which I was raised. In my experience, there’s music throughout the service. You’ll hear instrumental music being played as congregants mill about and find their seats before the service starts. You’ll hear call-and-response hymns during the devotional period between and even during prayers. You’ll even hear songs during the sermon – once the preacher begins to reach the summit of the message he’s ascended to deliver – up to and including at times, the pastor himself incorporating song into the sermon’s conclusion, with or without the help of the choir, as the moment requires. 

A meaningful, musical part of my teen churchgoing experience was dancing with the Angelettes. The first song I remember learning a praise dance to, was Kirk Franklin’s “Now, Behold the Lamb.” I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and a group of similarly-aged girls at my church had practiced Sis. Trice’s choreography so that the dozen or so of us could dance at church service one Sunday morning. We had each procured the required attire: white leotards and tights. And Sis. Trice had purchased or made us skirts. White gloves topped the ensemble, and when the appointed time arrived, we tamped down our stomachs’ butterflies to walk slowly, taking long, deliberate strides, toe-heel, somber-faced, to our starting dance positions in the sanctuary. 

Even now twenty-plus years later, I remember a few of the steps we performed: mimicking cradling a baby Jesus, gesturing while we looked heavenward, and the ending choreography, which found us going through the motions of “shouting” in church. We doubled over, arms wrapped around our stomachs and backs, hopping lightly as the music swelled, similar to the way we’d seen church ladies “get happy” our entire churchgoing lives. When a fellow dancer began to shout and cry, I felt a jolt run through me and even though I kept dancing, I began to cry myself. Once the dance concluded, I was unable to articulate to a curious churchgoer why I had cried. I only knew what I felt in my bones: I was moved, and my tears were a natural response to the movement I felt within me.

I remember, too, that when I was in the second grade, one of the people whom I loved learning about was Mahalia Jackson. Her face and voice calmed me, and I felt enveloped in a sense of comfort and ease whenever we got to read about her in class. I’ve carried that fascination with her aura into adulthood – from the CD of her music that I ordered from Columbia House while I was in college, to the fact that whenever our church sings “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” it never sounds quite right to me because it isn’t Jackson’s cadence and voice. And in those funereal moments when my mortality stares me in the face and I begin absently wondering what I’d want my own homegoing service to look like, Mahalia Jackson is there too – reminding the congregation that soon they, too, will be done with the trouble of the world. For me, Jackson’s voice is inextricable from a musical experience of who God is.

This week, I’ve put together a playlist of black gospel songs for you to listen to in perhaps a new way. Too often, in television and movies, black gospel choirs are used as a stylistic device. They appear for a moment – to make us laugh because their presence is jarring and their choir robes out of place; to make us feel a surge of giddiness because the guy and the girl finally get together at the end of the movie; to elicit in us a desire to forgive people in our own lives who have wronged us, just like the character on that show we like offered forgiveness to someone who wronged them.

And yet.

These media moments ring hollow for me. They fail to respect the sanctity of the black gospel tradition, the holiness created by a collective of voices crying out to God for help for hope and solace and freedom. They almost feel sacrilegious – these usages of black gospel choirs for non-gospel purposes. They reduce a beautiful communal experience to a punch line or an emotional footnote, never indicating that there is a rich faith tradition behind these heavenly choruses.

I don’t at all mean to indicate that people of faith should look to media representation for validation of their beliefs. What I do hope to point out is that black gospel choirs are an essential part of a beautiful faith tradition and should not therefore be treated as a punchline or a plot device.

I wonder. 

  • Have you ever experienced a surge of emotion upon hearing a black gospel choir sing? What has that emotion represented to you? 
  • Has it been a fleeting moment or a response to God beckoning you into relationship?
  • Have you ever questioned why we see black choirs used for these rhetorical purposes but not white worship groups, choirs, or praise bands? [granted, the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah has been more than once co-opted by culture at large – usually, though, it seems to be a chorus of voices only and not faces and bodies of a choir singing]
  • Is it any wonder that black people are time and again expected to soothe other people’s feelings rather than existing as whole people who exist in three dimensions?

I hope that as you listen to this playlist, you’ll allow yourself not just to feel inspired and joyful, but that also that you will listen and respond to the invitation that the black gospel tradition represents: to hope when hope seems lost. To create joy when sources of it are constantly snatched from our view. To broaden your concept of what it means to have church and to grow in knowledge of who God is. To love and be held by a Creator who came to Earth in human form to ensure us beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are never alone.

I hope that you listen not only to be moved, but to be changed.

I hope you’ll come back next week, refreshed and ready to keep working toward peace in our world church, one piece at a time.

Return, Remember

I began the year not with a resolution but with a word: remember. A focus of mine this year has been to return to that which I know I am and have been at my core. To build up confidence and courage from the person I have always been because she is who I was created to be. 

Lately, maybe due to the change of the seasons or the middle of our fall semester, I’ve found myself frustrated more often than usual. I am beginning to think, though, that the root of some of my frustrations is related to my one word for the new year: some people that I share my daily space and life with don’t seem interested in remembering who they are.

In my mind, remembering is individual and collective. We all have been created by the same God, with a divine purpose and plan, and with intention and completeness inextricable from our bodies and souls. To have a relationship with God is to acknowledge that remembrance, and to live a life by faith is to doggedly remain tethered to that same remembrance that drew us into that Created-Creator relationship. 

Case in point: a friend recently shared a podcast episode with me. She found that this episode’s examination of Christians’ responsibility with regard to civic engagement was resonant. For her, the episode represented a refreshing take on what it means to align civically with Christian values rather than aligning civically with a political party that is believed to espouse Christian values.

I, however, couldn’t finish the episode.

The idea that there is a single way to engage civically or politically as a Christian is deeply upsetting to me. It feels like exchanging one type of legalistic indoctrination for another. That isn’t to say that such an idea isn’t valid or shouldn’t resonate with those for whom it lands differently.

But for me, this idea isn’t it.

Take, too, for example, the unfortunately oft-espoused idea that you can love someone but not like them. I cannot count the times I’ve heard people say this, and each time I hear it, my breath holds, my pulse quickens, my heart sinks just a little. What a hurtful, potentially relationship-destroying belief to hold. Can we really not separate people we love from their actions which we may not? Can we not understand that love is a degree of like and therefore the two are inseparable? Have we been so hoodwinked by the idea that love is a choice that we can’t see the truth: that love for each other is a return to the God who made us; that yielding to love means remembering who we are?

As for people who identify as Christians who are conflicted about whom to vote for, if they vote at all – is it really necessary that we confine our identity to a rigid idea that someone besides ourselves decided was the only way a Christian can possibly vote? Since when did a vote change a person’s faith? We are – no matter how we vote – the people God made us to be. And if our faith in Christ compels us to vote a certain way based on our convictions which are rooted in that faith, then that is how we should vote. But in my view, that has to come from within, not from without.

Ever the student of Brene Brown’s insightful call to get curious about the feeling when I’m triggered or angry or hurt, this is the conclusion I have reached: that my desire to remember who I am isn’t always shared by the people around me. This can lead me to take others’ words to mean what they say rather than meaning what they meant to convey by saying them. It is a frustrate for which I have no answers, but the knowledge of which beckons me deeper still into remembrance. 

Piece 16: Hope and Hard Pills

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Music is a balm for me. When I am tired or distracted, the right tune can energize me and improve my mood. When I need the emotional release that accompanies a good, long cry, the right playlist will take me to that emotional space almost immediately. And, too, when I feel lost, forgotten, and unable to remember who I am, music can anchor and center me. Force me to sit still and quiet the voices without to listen to the still, quite voice within.

I stumbled across the Hope and Hard Pills podcast for the first time last summer. Having followed Andre Henry on social media for a short while, I noticed with interest when he promoted his podcast on his Facebook page. One particular episode – with Candice Benbow, another Christian thinker whose voice and insight I value – is my first recommended resource this week. Henry and Benbow speak frankly about loss, grief, and the complicated relationship we sometimes have with our church families (and they with us). The faith community they speak of building is the very thing I didn’t know I needed during my early twenties, when I was just trying desperately to accept the doctrine that had been presented to me as absolute truth during my college years. What a vastly different, spacious, inclusive theology would have done to transform and open my young heart, I’ll never be able to go back and know for sure. What I appreciate particularly is how much the church experiences Henry speaks to mirror my own. There’s a satisfying, deep sense of catharsis when strangers so aptly analyze experiences that left me frozen and almost unable to cope in real time. The healing that comes with such catharsis is thorough and – at the moment, anyway – ongoing.

The Red Couch with Propaganda and Alma is a podcast that provides unique perspectives from a black spoken word/rap artist and his Mexican wife, who is a professional academic. The couple speaks earnestly about their life experiences, their interracial and cross-cultural challenges, and raising their two daughters in the context of their blended family. Whether I glean new levels of meaning in world politics from Prop’s “Hood Politics” segment or collecting gems from Dr. Alma’s multicultural, data-informed insights, I learn something new from this pair every time I listen. The Red Couch with Prop & Alma is the second resource I suggest this week. 

The third resource I suggest is the always incisive “Combing the Roots with Ally Henny.” Every episode Henny publishes touches on a truth that resonates with me. For context: our backgrounds are similar. We are both black women in our thirties, with roots in the black American church, who married white men and ultimately became Episcopalians. With these commonalities, it’s no surprise that Henny’s experiences and perspective feel so similar to my own. Time after time, Henny combines her wit, candor, and vulnerability with commentary regarding the political climate and the state of the church, to boldly illuminate a new aspect of truth I need to hear. Her style is systematic and unflinching, two descriptors that seem to be missing from too many public conversations around justice and race today. 

As you listen to the voices of these activists, artists, and Christian thinkers this week, I hope you will consider these questions:

  • When you sense yourself feeling resistant to new ideas and perspectives, where does that resistance come from? Were you taught or conditioned to feel this resistance, or is it a natural response you have always felt?
  • How has broadening the scope of voices you listen to impacted your life? Has this led to deeper, more meaningful relational experiences with your friends and family?
  • How are you doing with recognizing and checking your biases? [confession: I’m a definite work in progress on this one]

Keep doing the heard work, all y’all. We will create peace for ourselves, our communities, our world, one piece at a time.

Charleston: A Watchman Meditation

Charleston Nine

I originally wrote this piece four years ago and published it on my former blog here. Since today is the anniversary of this tragedy, I brushed it off and polished it a bit to share again today.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”  – so says Uncle Jack to his niece Scout in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. In Lee’s novel, Uncle Jack’s words to Scout echo the words of the prophet Isaiah, in chapter 62, verse 6: – “O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually. Take no rest, all you who pray to the LORD.” But in church this morning, our reading of Psalm 127 pointed out that, “unless the Lord watches over the city, in vain the watchman keeps his vigil.” And as I sat in my pew, mulling over these words and connecting these recurrences of “watchman” to each other – because I’m never not an English teacher – a truth came into focus.

Several months ago, Andrew and a couple friends from church arranged a concert of their music. They played shortly after the Charleston church shooting, during a time when I was still personally deeply wounded, reeling from the horror of such a violent, racially motivated hate crime. During that concert, I noticed for the first time that black church  and white church are different: not just in worship style or length of service, but in the very theological concept of who God is and the reason we meet from week to week. Where white church seems primarily concerned with worship of God for who God is, black church – by contrast – is also concerned with reaching out to God for help not just with daily life but with the deep, ugly struggles we’d sometimes prefer to ignore. In my upbringing in the black church, I always saw a place for catharsis alongside worship. In white church, I’ve missed that.

The priest said today that, “In God’s world, there are no unseen people.” His insight connected very strongly with the Gospel reading from Mark, when the poor widow who gives two small coins is recognized by Christ for giving everything she had from her poverty. When I reflect on my upbringing in black church, I see the collective conscious Uncle Jack told Scout was a myth. And I see, too the call to individual conscience and watchmanship, the invocation of the Lord’s eyes to watch over our collective city, to see our invisible struggle. 

There are no invisible people in God’s kingdom.

And here is why I think white church doesn’t speak to the whole of my spiritual experience: I don’t see there a place for corporate lament, an acknowledgement of our society’s unseen, a call to stand in solidarity with those whose voices the church has historically refused to hear: the LGBTQ individual, the ethnic and socioeconomic minority, the outspoken and assertive woman. These groups are invisible to white church not because they can’t be seen but because there’s no desire to hear them in a way that acknowledges that they too are fearfully and wonderfully made, just as they are. And who can worship freely where one feels oneself is unseen, unacknowledged, unheard?

In one way, I agree with Uncle Jack’s assertion to Scout that every man’s conscience is his watchman. He’s right: we must each be accountable for our own actions, bear responsibility for our own decisions, pay attention to our surroundings enough to see and act accordingly in our day to day lives. But in another way, I think Uncle Jack missed the mark here.

If we are people of faith, then unless the Lord watches over us, our labor as watchmen is in vain. We must look to God to guide our conscience – collective or individual – so that our eyes may open to those in need right in front of our faces, and so that we may be led by God’s grace, to act for, with, and alongside the otherwise invisible. It isn’t enough to take the Gospel to the ends of the Earth if we haven’t also taken that same Gospel message to the invisible people around us who are looking to see if our God is also theirs: a God who watches over their city as well as our own. A God who sees and hears them. A God whose love doesn’t confine itself to a single interpretation of a single Bible verse in the name of tradition, but whose love reaches beyond tradition, scriptural misinterpretation, and historical erasure, and offers unconditional, all-encompassing, unashamed love to each heartbroken individual, each unheard people group, each silently weeping minority who’s been told time and again to conform and submit, each individual who has been silenced.

Whether we are people of faith or not, there is work to be done.

If we profess faith, we need to look to God to guide our conscience – collective or individual – so that our eyes may open to those in need right in front of our faces, and so that we may be led by God’s grace, to act for, with, and alongside the otherwise invisible.

If we are not people of faith, there still is work to be done: we must look within our hearts and minds to suss out our motivations. We cannot neglect to watch over the city of humankind because our own personal lives are idyllic. We cannot ignore the plight of our neighbor and focus only on ourselves.

There is indeed a collective conscious, with each individual obligated to do their part for the betterment of us all.

To The Class of 2020

When I first tried adult coloring books – you know, the ones with intricate patterns and numerous details and fancy mandalas – I was so excited to use my pretty metallic pens while listening to podcasts after the kids went to bed. But I was also overwhelmed. I would sit with a picture like, choose the colors I wanted to use, and then put the others aside (I didn’t want to get mixed up, you know.) But then as I began to color, I would notice so much more detail than I originally could see. The patterns I had created in my head would be ruined before I’d had a chance to bring them to life. I’d have to choose more colors or leave more spaces blank, possibly next to a space that had also been affected by the necessary pattern changing. 

Gradually, I leaned into the uncertainty. I would pick up a coloring book from my growing collection, select my favorite picture, and then turn to one I only liked a little bit – and *that* is where I would start. I’d choose colors I thought might be disparate, settle on a possible pattern in my mind, and dig in. Once I had completed a few of these rough drafts with pictures that were not my favorite, I would choose one or two beautiful colors and start in on my fave from that book.  And I would work on it intermittently, sometimes coloring less favored and less detailed pictures in-between sessions of coloring in my fave. In time, that feeling of irritation at having to re-imagine how I’d color in my masterpieces dissipated, and too, I began to find that some of my favorite pictures looked best with only one or two colors distributed deliberately, rather than every beautiful color in my collection.

Here is the truth, Class of 2020: Most of us did not see this pandemic coming. If we are fortunate, we each were happily settled into our favorite versions of our lives. We were going about our daily routines in a happy, busy, hum of activity. We had selected a canvas upon which to color by making choices regarding spouse and career and location, and we were just sitting and doodling. But this pandemic was not a part of the pattern that we could see until we were already settled well into this life. So here we all are, stuck in this moment in time – some of us protesting against it as if we can believe ourselves into invincibility in the name of liberty, some of us cowering in our own homes behind towers of hoarded TP and homemade masks, some of us alternating between praying and cussing and arguing and forgiving – all of us desperate to make this all make sense.  

But it just won’t.

We can’t force this time in our lives to fit neatly into the pattern we planned. 

Some of you have worked your whole academic careers to earn that spot in the top ten percent of your class to secure your scholarships. Some of you are the first in your family to complete high school, and you were excitedly looking forward to the whoops and cheers and air horns from your crowd of family as they watched you do what they never have. Some of you are plugged into your communities already as mentors for younger kids, and you know what it means for those kids to see you accomplish this milestone.

And now they can’t.

I want to apologize to you that the last glorious months of your high school career were stolen from you. But I also have to tell you that our collective global history could have given you no better life lesson than to screw up your plans. Every bit of life after high school graduation is about making plans and then having them ruined. 

Life is about the first real job you get being the job of your dreams, only to find out it doesn’t pay enough to cover both rent *and* student loan payments. 

Life is about marrying your high school sweetheart – the girl next door – only to discover yourselves growing apart rather than growing together.

Life is about sharing photos of your dream house with your best friend, only to watch them buy it before you’ve gotten a down payment together.

Life is about the million, billion wrong decisions you make that you can’t blame on anyone else, appointments you schedule but fail to make, the heartache of being ghosted by your best college friend.

Life is about the mess we can’t plan for but have to roll with. We as your teachers and parents and mentors could have taught you no better lesson than this: An adult life that is well and successfully lived, is chock full of emotional low points that turn into fuel to move forward.

The low-paying job of your dreams prompts you to create the non-profit that provides emotional and financial support for all in your profession.

The high school sweetheart-turned-spouse-turned-ex, simply was meant for another life, as are you. Your relationship and love for each other can remain as whole and supportive as they ever were, even as they take a different shape.

The dream house you couldn’t afford would only have ruined your credit score, and your cozy starter home can become as welcoming and dream-like as your imagination and budget allow.

I welcomed the class of 2020 into my Freshman English classroom four years ago. They tried my patience. They pushed and questioned me at every turn. They refused to complete assignments I left for a sub. They did all but pick up my beautiful box of colored pens and threw them at me and my lesson plans. They kept me on my toes. They forced me to grow. They jostled and struggled until together, we found the colors and patterns that fit our vision of what my classroom needed to be.

In the final analysis, life teaches us that we cannot choose our most perfect, beautiful picture and execute its pattern perfectly – not even if we practice first. All of our striving and planning and strategizing do not guarantee us the happy, idyllic life we so earnestly desire. Rather, we strive and plan and strategize so that we can find the joy and purpose in whatever life throws our way.

And you already know this, Class of 2020, but it bears repeating: this time in your life is not an ending but a beginning – a true commencement into the realness of life. Thanks to this global shutdown during a formative time in your life, you are uniquely equipped to handle the challenges that will undoubtedly continue come your way. Go confidently and boldly into this world, and color it with all the beauty and resilience of who you are.

Remember

This holiday season, I’ve carried a particular song with me more than in other years. The first time I heard “Now Behold the Lamb,” I was a fourteen year-old, recently baptized praise dancer trying to learn my first routine. There were maybe eight to ten of us girls who danced together – a few of us had solos during the verses, but mostly we danced in unison during the refrains. By the end of our first performance of that dance during church, I was in tears. I had not cried at all during practice, but something about the congregation’s response and the tears of some of my fellow dancers moved me.

Twenty-three years later, the tears still well up when I hear this song.

I have given some thought lately to new year’s resolutions, to goals and hopes and plans, as one does when a year is ending.

But as I’ve reflected on the largeness of this song in my memory and in my heart, I have wondered if maybe instead of looking forward, I need to look back.

Truly, America’s current political climate has had a hand in leading me down this mental road. How can we possibly be living amid a 21st century rise of anti-Semitism and anti-migrant sentiment? What answer can there be but that we have failed to remember from whence we came? Failed to remember who we are?

I wonder if it may benefit humankind to journey into our past to remember our common nature. At our core, we are relational beings who want to see and be seen, to care and be cared for, to love and be loved. Wouldn’t realizing this truth anew force us to see humanity in each other and act accordingly?

When I look back at my fourteen year-old self, stumbling over my words when an older congregant asked me why I cried near the end of our dance routine, I can help her answer him: I could see God’s grace so clearly, and see too that God’s incarnate grace came low in the full knowledge of who I am, who we are.

As 2020 nears, may we each find time to be still and remember who we are: first and foremost seeing and seen by a loving Creator. And may this bone-deep knowledge guide us forward in grace.

Morning Has Broken

Several years after being baptized at the age of 14, I prayerfully chose a small Christian college to pursue my degree. 

There, I began to struggle with my faith. 

Try as I might, I couldn’t unquestioningly accept my college culture’s indoctrination. I couldn’t successfully initiate conversation or debate when I encountered a doctrinal point in tension with my prior church experience. I couldn’t articulate a theological framework that satisfied my biblically-minded, confidently outspoken peers. I couldn’t quote Scriptures and spontaneously exegete parables to back up my inner nudge that something in that faith space just didn’t sit right with me. 

Consequently, I spent several years silencing my questions, wondering at the validity of my own faith, and trying mightily to “grow” into a mature, reasoned, logical church culture that pushed all feeling aside in favor of “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” – as if there is no possibility of our misunderstanding or misinterpreting “what God said.”

With God’s grace, I pushed through this stage of my faith formation, working out my salvation in fear and trembling, to arrive in a space of progressive, justice-oriented doctrine, fearless and unashamed of my convictions.

But there still was the matter of the church. 

During this time, I began following progressive thinkers and bloggers and theologians on Twitter, in podcasts, and through books. But in my real day-to-day life, here in the buckle of the Bible belt, I’d failed to make similar connections.While I never left the church physically – and even though my denomination was making strides nationally in support of same-sex marriage and clergy, and working visibly in support of reconciliation, all through the lenses of Scripture and tradition – I still felt somewhat disconnected.

And then a new priest came to town. Fresh from seminary and embodying a fresh perspective, consistent kindness, and a compassion and work ethic that plugged him immediately into the local community.

Without realizing it, I gradually began to heal in the cracked, broken places I’d previously learned to live with by keeping my wounds held close to my chest.

In a real and true way, the past two years have allowed me to exhale – with every sermon that leaned into sins of injustice rather than shying away from them, with every encouragement to articulate my ideas rather than stifling them, with each shared dinner around their table or ours.

Before I learned last month that our priest would be moving with his family to Maine, I had not realized the depth of the healing I’ve experienced these last few years. I’m not sure I can articulate what it means to have had a real-life, in-person pastor espousing a gospel centered around Christ and compassion and justice. 

I know that my faith will still challenge me at times, and that growth in Christ resembles more of a Jeremy Bearimy than a straight line. But as I prepare to say goodbye to our pastor and friend, closing this healing chapter in the life of my faith, I find myself filled with gratitude. 

I’ve been blessed by our pastor and his family. And now, reluctant though I am to accept that they are leaving, i nonetheless feel equipped to keep moving forward, in faith.

Amen.

legacy

Near the end of the last act of “Hamilton,” our hero pauses just before he’s shot dead by Aaron Burr. This long pause gives Hamilton time to muse on his legacy – what the word means, what his will be – and to say goodbye to his wife and hello to his mother and son.

Legacy, says Hamilton, is planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.

I could not help but think of these words upon learning that Rachel Held Evans passed away this morning.

I first became aware of Evans’ work years ago, when I began reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I met this book during a time in my young adulthood when I was beginning to unpack some of the theological teachings I was spoon-fed in college. I was questioning the legitimacy of the idea that women are *supposed* to be stay-at-home moms. I was questioning the validity of the idea that all women in the church are subordinate and/or complimentary to all men in the church. I was questioning the accuracy of prevailing biblical interpretation that condemned homosexual people either to celibacy or damnation (neither of these options being valid enough for full acceptance into the body of Christ).

And I did not know then if it was possible to hold beliefs that felt true in my heart and still be a part of a church or a Christian at all.

Rachel Held Evans’ thorough, insightful, transparent work taught me that theological indoctrination does not supercede the truth of God’s word or outweigh God’s ability to speak truth to my heart.

When I ran errands around town today with my younger son, I thought repeatedly that Evans will never do this with her own kids, who are still practically babies.

And yet.

Look what she’s left them: not only her love, plenty of pictures (I’m sure) that will immortalize memories they themselves are too young to hold onto. But she’s also left them this wonderful body of work that chronicles the working out of her salvation, in spirit and in truth.

I have such a deep thankfulness that Evans shared her words with the world. But my words are few and tears are many at this moment. I don’t know if there’s anyone else I’ve never met whose had such an impact on who I am.

I’m so grateful she’s left this legacy to her babies and to us all. A legacy of faith and truth and a spirit of boldness.

Amen.