your church should close

Last month, I attended the last of my three national church gatherings for the year, this time the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), gathering in Des Moines. I gotta tell you, I’ve been a little too hopped up on church. And I’ve been reminded that, as much life as I find in church, I also find a whole lot of, well, death. 

This time, I was mostly in the exhibit hall, staffing a booth for UrbanSpirit

A woman approached my booth and asked me about our work, and I talked about poverty and the related  issues — housing, race, gender, childcare, transportation, food deserts, plus immigration and education. You know the list. 

She mentioned that, recently, in her town, in response to President Trump’s “send her back” moment (when he suggested that four Congressional Representatives who are women of color should quit criticizing America and “go back where they came from,” and “Send her back” became a battle cry among his followers), someone in her town wrote “send them back” in the white stripes of an American flag and posted it for all to see.

She was quite bothered. 

I asked what her church had done in response. Nothing, she said. They were a small church, just 8 of them. (I said Jesus just had 12.) But the pastor was sick. No one had time. And 15 other excuses. I challenged each excuse best I could, but she was adamant that there was nothing her church could do to make a public witness that such a racist act was not okay, that there was at least one church in town that rejected it. 

Finally, I just told her that her church should close and quit taking up space in the community. 

Then, on the way home from Des Moines, a song came on that I hadn’t heard in a long time: Scarecrow, by Melissa Etheridge, about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming who was abducted and tied to a fence, tortured and left to die.  

Melissa recounts the horror: 

We all gasp this can’t happen here!
We’re all much too civilized; 
where can these monsters hide?

But then she answers her own question: 

But they are knocking on our front door, 
They’re rocking in our cradles,
They’re preaching in our churches, 
And eating at our tables.

They’re preaching in our churches. 

Preaching in our churches.  

And I was reminded of the very substantial support that Trump’s racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia get from churches that claim to follow Jesus. Some otherwise-admiring national “faith leaders” actually complained recently, though not about Trump’s racism. They were bothered that he had said “goddamn” twice in a speech. That is, frankly, the least of our worries. 

They’re preaching in our churches. 

Or sitting in the pews doing nothing whilst the racist murderers rage. 

Then, this weekend, barely a week after that Des Moines church event, we all read the horrifying but no longer surprising news that two more white racist gunmen had killed scads of people going about their lives. Shopping. Socializing. 

Part of the church’s problem is that we are paid for in part by community money and we don’t want our underwriting to go away. 

We are subsidized. Not unlike farmers that grow what they’re told in exchange for federal payments. The tax exemptions that we receive allow us to own property more cheaply and take advantage of community services (fire, police, roads, schools, etc) paid for by our neighbors; plus receive donations that are  tax deductible; and offer our pastors housing allowances that are income-tax-exempt. 

So I have two questions. 

First, are we worth it? 

While we take up space, keeping prime property off the tax rolls, and robbing our communities of much needed revenue, are we adding anything of value? 

Second, what would we say if we weren’t afraid? Afraid of losing our tax breaks, but also afraid of annoying our donors, afraid of losing members, afraid of alienating the Lions, Kiwanians, or Chamber of Commerce, afraid of being uncomfortable at church potlucks or family dinners? 

Fear doesn’t become the body of Christ; and we don’t become the body of Christ by being afraid. 

Our love affair with guns has always been about white supremacy (all the way back to bounties on runaway slaves and land-grabs from indigenous peoples). But there is no room in the church for white supremacy. 

Some, I know, are fed up and have no idea what to do. 

So, I have three ideas (and you may have more): 

1. Flood the offices of your elected leaders with notes, cards, emails and phone calls, demanding a change in the way we revere guns, even calling for repeal of the second amendment.

2. Make whatever donations you can to progressive candidates. Especially contribute to the defeat of Mitch McConnell. He has a challenger, Amy McGrath, not a strong or good candidate, and holding many of the same opinions Mitch holds, but at least if she wins, he won’t be the Majority Leader anymore, unilaterally and single-handedly blocking the people’s business. 

3.Raise the conversation in arenas where you expect not to be well-received. Say it and live with the fall-out. Don’t buy the line that churches can’t be political. Preach it, bring it to Thanksgiving dinner, say it in the grocery check-out line. Don’t worry about saying it well. Just don’t let the moment go by. 

Otherwise, we’re just taking up space, worth nothing to our communities — but a heck of a bargain to empire, which pays us for our silence.  

Racism and race-based violence are part of the fabric of America, and will continue to be until we insist on something else. It seems clear to me that people who claim Jesus’ way, the way of the ancient prophets, ought to be in the front of the pack of those clamoring for a new way. 

So, start talking. Or go ahead and close your church.

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travelog of a resolution

(Fully aware that I may offend all sides, I want to share my experience of bringing a righteous resolution to the UCC General Synod. This essay has also been published in my congregation’s newsletter and our local association newsletter. You are free to offer comment, as you see fit. Here we go.)

“The system protects itself, by any means necessary.” 

I wrote that on Facebook last month during the General Synod, as I watched a process unfold that was as maddeningly unbelievable as it was predictable. 

Two years ago, Jay Cummings and I wrote an anti-bigotry resolution that was endorsed by Woodside Church Board of Directors and forwarded to Michigan Conference, where it was adopted and forwarded to the General Synod for wider-Church consideration. 

The full title of the resolution was “Stewardship of Exhibit Space as a Resource for a Mission of Justice,” and the gist of it was this: The exhibit hall is a resource for living out our mission, and if any organization has a message that is counter to the UCC declarations about being open and safe space, especially for LGBTQ folks, that oganization will be denied a platform in the exhibit hall and other public spaces during General Synod. 

The resolution singled out one offending organization, the Faithful and Welcoming Churches (FWC), which I find to be neither. It is a collection of about 70 conservative congregations formed in 2005 when the UCC voted affirmation of marriage equality. Its mission is to restore the UCC to its pre-apostate days, the days before the UCC lost its way and became so … liberal. It has been known by other names: Biblical Witness and ECOT (evangelical, conservative, orthodox, traditional). The head of this group is a pastor in N.C., Bob Thompson, who has made it a mission to organize against rights for LGBTQ folk. He’ll tell you that he loves us, loves everybody, in fact; but his work has been to block ordinations and lobby the church against marriage equality — a civil right now guaranteed by the Supreme Court. 

(Other rights such as housing and employment are not yet won; the work goes on.) 

Denying rights is hard to align with “love,” as our friends of color perhaps would attest.  

The “unbelievable and predictable” part began long before we gathered in Milwaukee last month; together with some skewing along the way, the result was deeply frustrating and ultimately inconclusive. 

Prior to General Synod convening, we knew the resolution was drawing attention, sparking debate. Jay, Campbell (Lovett, our Conference Minister) and I were asked to speak with some delegations in advance of the Synod, and then with others in caucus in the early days of the Synod. As part of the Michigan delegation, which brought the resolution, I was assigned to be the proponent of the resolution, the primary spokesperson, and I personally met with three delegations, to help them understand the purpose and the stakes. 

But the predisposition was clear. This wasn’t going to go well. 

First, there was the action by the church hierarchy to change the type of resolution that it was. We submitted it as a prudential resolution, that is, a resolution pertaining to the way we do internal business. It was re-categorized as a resolution of witness, that is, a statement of belief or commitment to the world outside the church doors. This matters, because one type requires simple majority, the other two-thirds. We were being held to the higher margin. 

I vociferously challenged this at every possible level of authority, on the grounds that all the underlying witness actions had already been decided over the past 40 years. It was denied. 

Then, in the first plenary, the first business meeting of all the gathered delegates, as the resolutions as a package were being presented for acceptance as future action items, a formality prior to being sent to committee, I asked again, this time of the floor parliamentarian, if this was a moment I could challenge that designation; he said no, that the proper moment to challenge was on the floor of the Synod when the resolution was presented to the plenary individually by the appropriate committee — in this case, Committee 8. So I waited. 

Second, in that first plenary, as we practiced our voting clickers, it also became apparent that the automatic tally was adding yes + no + abstentions = 100%. This was incorrect, as abstentions do not count. If we were to be held to 2/3, it should only be 2/3 of people actually voting. I raised this issue and it was corrected.

There are two key places that resolutions get airtime prior to the floor debate in a plenary session: first, in an educational intensive, a session to help people understand the background and get a broader view of the issues; and then a committee hearing, when the committee debates, first with and then without the input of anyone interested enough to show up. Delegates are assigned to committees; visitors choose where they’d like to sit in. 

So, third, while the educational intensives for other resolutions seemed designed to help people understand the issue, ours was not really. 

The educational intensive for Resolution 8 was not about stewardship, not about bigotry or violence against LGBTQ folks, not about the work of FWC or the church’s many, many prior actions affirming the LGBTQ community. 

It was instead about civility. It was called “stewarding difference in the exhibit space,” and we were coached on the various ways of responding to issues, drilled on techniques for keeping conversation respectful and keeping people together in hard times. 

While other proponents were invited to speak to their resolutions in their educational intensives, in our intensive I was not allowed; in fact, no one was allowed to discuss the resolution at all. All comments were restricted to conversation about civility and process only. 

The result was that, when we got to the committee, more than a few people who were actually assigned to the committee had no idea what the fuss was about or why this resolution was anything other than an ugly and personal attempt to silence a particularly charming man, who was head of FWC. 

In fact, and fourth, that man, Bob Thompson, was a delegate to Synod, and assigned to Committee 8. I challenged his assignment to the committee, and was told it was random, and that the planners were unwilling to break with the system of randomly assigning. And he was unwilling to recuse himself. 

Bob then masterfully co-opted the committee, at one point stating in a hang-dog kind of way that “if y’all don’t want me here, if y’all pass this resolution, I’ll get the message; I’ll just leave. I won’t be back at Synod anymore.” 

To which the committee responded “oh, no, Bob! Don’t go!” and they all commented on his nice-ness. How could anyone want Bob to go? they mourned. “Who here wants Bob to stay?” One committee member (who was not the chair) actually asked for a show of hands.  

One lone woman called Bob on his attempt to abuse power and privilege. She said, “I feel manipulated by your fragility.” But the committee as a whole was poisoned by his presence. 

Bigotry was not really much discussed in Committee 8; harm caused to the LGBTQ community was a secondary concern to excluding opinions, plus the feelings of Bob, the man who has caused — continues to cause — personal and professional harm to any number of LGBTQ pastors and would-be pastors. 

I had been advised that, as proponent of the resolution, I would have the privilege of 10 minutes to address the committee, a longer period of time than anyone! (Longer, certainly, than any of the FWC people, until we learned the FWC president was on the committee.) 

I wrote and practiced draft after draft of a speech, to ensure I was as efficient as possible and said all that needed to be said in a prescribed period. My remarks came in at 9m50s. 

But because Bob was a member of the committee, he had the floor as often and as long as he wanted. He tearfully told a moving story about one woman, a pastor whose ordination he had blocked, who had written a letter he perceived as an invitation to conversation, maybe even “reconciliation,” he said. 

I later learned from that pastor herself (who gave me permission to share) that the letter and story had been distorted by him and shared by him without her permission, which caused her fresh pain. She said she felt used, harmed yet again. I imagine so. 

Ultimately, the committee adopted a better resolution, with substitute language I had drafted more broadly about bigotry, intended to protect all the “historically under-represented groups” of the UCC, including LGBTQ, Black and LatinX, disabled folks and those living with mental illness. 

But ugly was still to come.  

Among the deleted and rewritten provisions was this mind-blowing moment: 

Regarding one of the action statements, 

“Be it resolved that the UCC motto ‘that they may all be one,’ does not require giving voice to bigotry,” 

the committee balked, and it barely passed 18-17. 

So the one provision stayed in, but then, the committee voted by an overwhelming margin to present the resolution to the plenary with committee recommendation to defeat it. 

The resolution’s final step, then, was to the plenary for action by the entire Synod. 

Remember, this was the moment I was told to challenge the witness v prudential classification? 

So, fifth, just before the resolution was introduced, I was informed by the chief parliamentarian that I had been misinformed by the floor parliamentarian: the time for requesting a resolution be reclassified was two days before — at the moment I had asked the question to begin with. I confess I said aloud “that’s bullshit,” which I’m sure did not endear me to folks in charge. (FYI: Michigan UCC-er and Federal Judge Denise Page Hood was the chief parliamentarian, a lovely person, wonderful to work with.)  

Ours was in the last block of resolutions, and the debate, scheduled for Monday afternoon, was delayed, creating confusion. It  finally began on Monday evening. (Committees had met Sunday morning.) While other resolutions had maybe half a dozen folks lined up at microphones, this resolution had many more, including our Michigan Youth at Synod, with passionate speakers from Woodside & Manistee congregations. 

Anyone wishing to speak was granted one minute, so we had all carefully written and practiced. People had all kinds of comments and critiques, which skewed to calls for civility and unity, and how Jesus didn’t exclude people. Several quoted our church motto, “that they may all be one,” which I pointed out was from a prayer Jesus prayed. Jesus prayed for unity, but worked for justice.   

Lots of folks misrepresented the resolution’s intent. They kept referencing exclusion from the communion table (which no one intends) rather than denial of exhibit tables (which are places to market your message). A confusion that seems baffling to me, perhaps disingenuous. 

So very many people called on us all to be nice, to be kind, even vilifying some of us for wanting to banish the bigotry. Someone misquoted Jesus: “Turn the other cheek.”  Better just to pretend nothing is amiss. Better to glorify charm, whatever the cost. 

Meanwhile, I watched Bob, waiting at a “no” mic, moving  back every time someone else stepped up, clearly intending to have the last word. 

Someone suggested that we should have begun with prayer and so she led us, though no one had led prayer before we voted on carbon dividends or Styrofoam, or divesting from the private prison industry, nor on merging three southern New England conferences into one, or standing against sexual violence or children in cages at the border, or even denouncing neo-Nazis. 

None of those required special prayer, because we expect the church to be able to do its job. 

The vice-moderator then announced her intent to limit debate (because it’s late and we’re tired, so let’s just vote and call it a night), which isn’t how Robert’s Rules work; someone challenged, and she was overridden by the plenary, which voted to continue in the morning if needed. (Correcting her should not have required a vote), Someone moved to table, and it failed. Debate continued, even the next morning. Then someone else moved to table, and it passed. 

So, that was the end. It was tabled. 

But (sixth? seventh? eighth?) Bob got the last word anyway. He approached a “procedural” mic, for a moment of “personal privilege,” and was granted an opportunity to give a commercial for the work of FWC, with no clock running. 

(You’d have to ask a better parliamentarian than I whether that was a reasonable use of the privilege. Given the content of the resolution and the tenor of the room, I would have said not. But the moderator allowed it.) 

Bob talked about how sad they were that their intentions had been misinterpreted, noting the FWC materials have been retooled, (and their website scrubbed, I noted), though he failed to mention that the mission has not changed. He invited folks to drop by the table and experience his nice-ness first-hand. Or something like that.  

I’m told the youth requested later, in the final plenary, a moment of privilege to address the group, but were denied by the moderator. 

Where does all that leave us? 

You may think I’m a jaded conspiracy theorist, but I assessed the wider church’s actions as intentionally working to undermine this resolution. It was hard to see it any other way. Every possible roadblock was employed, not just to keep this from passing, but to keep us from talking about it. Because conversation can be dangerous. It can change things, and change makes us uncomfortable. 

I was deflated by the church’s unwillingness to call out bigotry against LGBTQ folks. I just couldn’t imagine we would allow someone to organize, for example, against the children in cages to whom we were pledging our aid. I couldn’t imagine we would allow antiimmigrant or antirefugee or antiArab activity to have a platform in our halls. 

Or Border Patrol. We protested against ICE during the event, so could you just imagine an ICE table — a table where they tried to explain they were just following orders, just trying to keep our country pure, or our borders safe, or whatever the hell it is they’re doing? 

Later, I spoke with one colleague, a man I love dearly and know to be a progressive mind, who said he was “on the fence” about this resolution. So, I asked whether he would oppose giving exhibit space to some group organizing against the civil rights of black people. He said “you know I would.” I asked what was different, but he couldn’t answer. 

I think a lot of people would have a similar take, and perhaps not know why. 

So, I have a theory about what is different for them. 

In the educational intensive, one of the leaders, talking about the need for civility, said “you know, someone may say ‘I’m gay’ and someone else may say ‘I don’t agree.’” 

That’s the problem. People think we can disagree about LGBTQ, in a way we cannot about color or ethnicity. You’d never hear someone say “I’m black” and someone respond “I don’t agree with that.” 

When I say “I’m lesbian,” I’m not inviting dissent. You don’t get to vote or disagree or really have a valid opinion. You get to say ok. You can also say “eeeeww.” But that’s on you. I’m not lesbian as a way to annoy you or piss off God. I’m just lesbian. Created to be. It’s not like we’re disagreeing about Styrofoam. It’s about you not believing me when I tell you my truth, when I say that lesbian is my being, not a habit or phase or rebellion or fashion or alternative lifestyle. 

Hospitality, then, doesn’t mean giving voice to every opinion, but creating safe space for every person. Even Bob Thompson. He can be in the community, at the table of communion, even stay for fellowship after worship and be cared for and loved. But none of that requires we give him space to organize against another group of human beings just for being themselves. The pain he may claim to feel over losing his microphone is not the same as the pain he causes by working against human, civil and ecclesial rights for LGBTQ folks. 

Jesus said to beware of wolves in sheeps’ clothing, and I think we ought to pay a little more attention to that. 

What makes it worse for me is that so many of my LGBTQ siblings have drunk the koolaid. 

We are struggling with the foot of church hierarchy still on our necks, and very many of us spoke out in favor of civility or some (false) unity instead of justice and safety. It seems to be true still that oppressed people learn to identify in some ways with their oppressors, perhaps without even realizing it. 

But it is also true that, as white gay men and lesbians have moved more into the mainstream (men more than women), we have to be aware of how we are using power, aware of the pain of queer people of color, especially trans people of color, for whom the murder rate is off the charts, and for questioning young people, for whom the suicide rate is many times the rate of their straight peers. It would be unconscionable simply to accept our new membership in the power club and not look back. Power always comes with responsibility, always. Mitch McConnell notwithstanding. 

On a brighter note, as disgusted as I am with the process we’ve just seen — and the fear and reluctance of the church to have conversation or to come to terms with its own bigotry – I have to report that Michigan is alive and well. Several Michigan folks stood to proclaim words of justice, to share stories of personal pain, including our youth. 

And God love Campbell, our Conference Minister; he is a grace. Throughout the tiring   process, he never wavered. He supported, advocated, took calls and criticisms from others. “Campbell, what are you doing?!” they would beg to know. 

I believe him when he says this isn’t over. The Council of Conference Ministers will not hear the end of it from Campbell, and in this, we will have his back. The church will not get to take the easy way of avoiding conversations, all the while pretending there is no pain involved.  

Perhaps it was a mistake to name FWC specifically; they certainly aren’t the only folks harping on us as if we are issues to be addressed or problems to be fixed. But I’m told that naming them, while perhaps contributing to the defeat of the resolution, has shined a light on them unlike before. Since the theme of this General Synod was “Shine!” perhaps we’ve done our work.  

After I got home from synod, another post appeared in my Facebook feed, a meme based on a reflection from Naomi Shulman, whose mother was born in Munich, 1934. I find it a good thing to remember, in these days of inoffensive church and inconceivably harmful state, so I offer it to you, a reflection on civility: 

“Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than ‘politics.’ They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.” 

charge to a pastor: thoughts for a new year.

from may 7, 2015…

Denise has asked me to deliver the charge to the pastor today, so I’m happy to share with you these thoughts rolling around in my head:

Work hard; in fact, work all the time. Don’t go bowling or see a movie if there is something else more ministry-like that you should be doing. Set goals and don’t stop until they are met. Take failure personally. Let the anger of one person outweigh the joy of 99 (because isn’t there a parable about that?). Set high standards and never let yourself off the hook. Be innovative. Start new traditions. Buck the system. Maintain a high level of righteous indignation. Stay up on the news. Be creative, spiritual, humble, well-loved. Be an excellent preacher. All the time. Seriously, 52 weeks a year, plus festivals. One single mediocre sermon is beneath you and will undo all the good you are trying to accomplish here. Be relevant, empathetic, deep, engaging, confident. And hip with young people.

And for god’s sake, don’t ever have spinach in your teeth.

This is why, when it is time to hear the charge to the pastor, we ask someone else to do it. Because the voices in our own heads can be unreasonable. Insecure. Overwhelming. judgmental.

So, this is what I offer to you, and what I will do my best to hear today as well:

You aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last. You join a ministry as old as the ages and new everyday. There is some freedom in that.

Believe that God operates through imagination more than intimidation or exhortation. Draw attention to the brokenness of our world and invite folks to see their creative part in mending it. Not just in the congregation, but in the community. We are church for community. It’s the only reason.

Take preaching seriously. An old professor told me once to “Love the people like you’ll be there forever, but preach like you’re leaving tomorrow.” Tell the truth.

“Having a prior commitment” is a good enough reason to say no, sometimes even if it is a commitment to drink wine on your back porch alone or with your partner. And a day off is a day off. My internship supervisor nearly 30 years ago said once “it’s not a day off if I have to shower.” Set your own standard for what that means and honor it.

A multi-dimensional life does more to nourish faithful ministry than a continuing ed course on, well, almost anything. Cross-train. Know how to do stuff. Ministry stuff, maybe, like worship writing or teaching middle schoolers or strategic planning. But other stuff, too, like how to interact with your favorite art or sport or historical period or power tool. Get your hands dirty. Garden. Throw pots, dig through architectural salvage. Keep wet wipes in your car in case you stumble upon something irresistable in a random trash pile.

Honor “process,” but don’t drown in it.

Read. Read the bible, read the news, but more than that. Read beautiful prose and poetry, things that make you laugh and wonder. Things that challenge your assumptions or ignite your passions. Things that take you someplace new.

Pray. Pray for insight, wisdom, grace, energy, patience. Especially patience. Even if you never get any, at least you can say you tried.

Recognize your spiritual gifts. And let others have theirs. Remind others, and yourself, as needed, what I’ve heard before: that martyrdom is a gift you can only use once.
Be kind to yourself. A healthy you is going to be more effective than any other kind. Tend to your body, your spirit, your mind, your emotions. I recommend a counselor, a screened porch, a firepit, a journal. But if you choose a pottery wheel, knitting needles or an animal shelter, I totally get it.

There are a lot of hurting people in the world, people who need more than anything for the church to be the body of Christ, the body of Christ without its collective heel on their throats. Some of them are members of your church. Keep them in mind.

But keep Jesus in your heart. We’re more like him than we know. Practice resurrection, as Wendell Berry has advised. In fact, let Wendell and other modern prophets and poets guide your heart as well. Even if they aren’t religious.
And since we suck at saying all this to ourselves, surround yourself with colleagues and non-church friends who will say it to you.

Serve as long as you are called; then go without apology or regret to the next thing to which God is beckoning. God is still speaking, you know. Even to us.

It is sacred work that can be profane. We are a holy people who can be all too unholy.

Of course the short form of all of this is from a sermon I heard recently: “So be as badass, compassionate and wise as you can. Be empty. Be full. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of being afraid.” You, my dear sister, preached that. To me and scads of other hearers. So I give it back to you.

Do your best. It is enough.

rainbow, plus

As I write this, there is is a 70-ish straight white woman sewing black and brown stripes onto our congregation’s pride flag.

Let me say I’m not necessarily an “early adopter.” And when the story of the Philadelphia flag adaptation became news, I wasn’t sure what I thought. In part I thought it was a bad idea – not because I think the LGBT movement is inclusive enough (it isn’t) or because I think black and brown people want too much (they don’t, and even framing the issue that way makes me grimace).

First, honestly, as I posted on facebook, at a glance, I thought it was a shout-out to bears. Not unworthy of a shout-out, but not the intention.

But more than that, I was remembering my years in Washington DC in the mid-80s, when all the men I knew were dying or losing friends by the dozens or hundreds. The rainbow flag was a sign of life, of hope, of not being completely alone during an administration that wouldn’t even say the word AIDS out loud. I had 4 particular friends during that time, all now dead, three black and one white, and the rainbow flag was, for us, a way of being visible. An indication of a safe place.

I wasn’t against changing the flag because I didn’t like the Philadelphia design, but because I know it is sacred to so many people who remember those days, the lack of visibility, respectability, safety. It is a sacred symbol, and sacred symbols change slowly, a lesson I’ve learned from 30 years as a pastor. I knew that, now, with more stripes, no matter what, the symbol would be divisive when it was meant to be inclusive. That was borne out by the blogs and posts I have read from either perspective.

Here’s what I have realized: It was divisive all along. And it made some people – a lot of people – invisible, though it was supposed to do the opposite.

As a lesbian, maybe I should have caught on to this more quickly. The pink triangle, claimed as a gay symbol for decades now, was a redeemed holdover from the Nazi era, a time when gay men were tattooed with it. But lesbians were not. We were mostly marked with black triangles, signs of threats to society: lesbians and other “unproductive” women, but also vagrants, felons and other social misfits. Even the word “gay,” which, by the time of Stonewall, came to be used almost exclusively about men. “LGBT” came later, and additions of Q and I have now broadened our community’s self-understanding even more. Cumbersome? Maybe. Righteous? Definitely.

I learned of all the very many ways the flag has been adapted over the decades for various communities, purposes and events – apparently all with the blessing of whoever owns the design. Or maybe no one does, as a nod to the society we wish we were. (Gilbert Baker, the designer, died earlier this year; folks who claim to have known him are confidently speculating that he would and would not approve the new design.)

Anyway, the very many adaptations made me remember another fight the gay community had to endure. Ages ago, when the Gay Games were new, they were called the Gay Olympics. Nope, said the USOC. That’s a trademarked name, and you can’t use it. Nevermind there were Special Olympics, Junior Olympics and a plethora of other events using the name (frogs, police, rats and beer among them). The USOC took the Gay Olympics organizers to court, and eventually SCOTUS upheld the ownership right of the USOC. It was the early 80s, and discrimination was the order of the day. There was no way to spin the USOC argument except to call it discrimination.

Likewise, with so many iterations of the pride flag serving so many distinct parts of our community, there is no defensible way to object to the additions of black and brown stripes. To argue otherwise, even eloquently, boils down to racism, an embrace of symbol red-lining. “You, yes.” “You, yes.” “You, no.”

Which underscores the reason to add the stripes in the first place. Our community is not whole. We are not who we want to be. We are not truly who we are.

So here’s how it boils down for me: When congregations walk through a process of becoming open to the LGBTQ community, almost invariably someone will say “We already welcome everyone. Why do we have to name gay people specifically?” And the answer is that LGBTQ folks perceive an invisible asterisk in that welcome, because they, we, have experienced so many times when the welcome wasn’t for us, or it was for us if only we would act straight, or whatever. If people don’t feel welcomed, it is incumbent on us to make sure to welcome them. Specifically. Individually, if needed.

The LGBTQ POC community tells us they aren’t feeling it. With good reason and with a mountain of evidence. We have work to do.

And that is why my congregation’s very own Betsy Ross is adding stripes today. This weekend, you’ll see Woodside’s pride, including black and brown stripes – a symbol of the wholeness to which we aspire.

 

for a beautiful derby day…

I’ve been promising my congregation a thoughtful editorial on “Creation Justice.” I keep postponing, not because it’s not important, but because I’m having a hard time knowing where to begin.

So, how about if I just ponder the bookends of my week?

Last weekend, Woodside hosted John Dorhauer, president and moderator of the United Church of Christ, one of our denominations. On Saturday, as an intro, I gave John a tour around Flint for a couple of hours. I give a pretty good tour – the one the Woodside search committee gave me more than 3 years ago, the tour that was a huge part of my being compelled to accept the call to come here. John said the only place he’d ever experienced anything that came close to what he saw here was Gaza. That’s a difficult comparison to forget.

This weekend, the Kentucky Derby will dominate the world of horse-racing and preoccupy many a Kentuckian, capping a two-week festival that began with the biggest fireworks show in the world. I will not be there, of course, but I lived in Louisville through 18 Derby festivals. Hundreds of thousands of people will sing My Old Kentucky Home, and they’ll listen to Dan Fogelberg’s 1981 tear-jerking song of baby horses, Run for the Roses. There will be myriad heart-warming stories told about the horses, plus the back stories of trainers, owners, jockeys, horse names, omens, coincidences. The favorite story this year — if not the favorite horse — is Patch, a horse with one eye.

But the stories less likely to be told are of the devastations of the racing industry: the over-bred horses that run on ankles like toothpicks, the 1-in-every-500 starts that ends in the death of a horse; the drugging of horses, or the panic in their eyes as ID numbers are tattoed on the inside of their lips; the jockeys’ desire for fair wages; the heightened fear among workers on the backside about immigration policy.

There is also the hideous story of the perhaps tens of thousands of economically valueless colts, bred and then sent to slaughter, to produce lactating mares who serve only one industry purpose, as wet nurses for more promising colts – those privileged weeks-old future racehorses who cannot stay with their own moms, because mothers who can produce winners are shipped off to be bred again almost immediately, after enduring an 11-month pregnancy. (You can read more about horse exploitation at PETA or The Horse Fund. If you think I’m wrong, give me better sources.)

Then, in Kentucky, there is the story of the sales tax-exemptions: racehorses and various aspects of horse racing (boarding, training, breeding) that could have provided millions of dollars to the state coffers, that is, the common good. Could have.

Saturday to Saturday. A tour of Flint, then the Run for the Roses.

In between, Monday I attended my partner’s swearing in as a new attorney, a member now of the Kentucky Bar. At the ceremony, the speaker was Allison Connelly, a law professor and former public defender. She riffed a bit on the 14th Amendment — the one guaranteeing every person due process and equal protection of the law. She talked about how our understanding of that amendment is continually evolving, a generally good thing; then, she called on all the new attorneys to stand on the side of someone, to raise their voices when they see injustice. In so many cases, in civil disputes, (like over water bills), she reminded them, there is no guarantee of an affordable attorney. So, they should offer themselves for free, to help make “equal protection” a reality for someone who has been injured or oppressed.

I thanked her afterward, and pondered how her work and mine are similar, how the call to all of us is really the same: to use our voices.

Flint’s devastation. The Derby’s exploitation. And a law professor’s invitation.

Creation Justice. In the church, it is what we might also call environmental justice. Or stewardship of creation. It might make us think of recycling or adjusting thermostats. But that’s not the whole story.

I don’t think of Creation Justice as having figured out the perfect way to participate in life on the planet. It isn’t simply zero carbon footprint or no cut trees or eradication of Styrofoam, although all of those are worthy goals.

Creation Justice is rather, for me, about equal protection for the whole creation, which is Micah’s reminder that we are to walk humbly with God, which is about remembering that the planet doesn’t belong to us.

It is about mindfulness, about us paying attention, being willing to see, about making connections, about noticing the impact we have and taking responsibility for whatever are the painful by-products and collateral damage of the things we do and make — like horse-racing and fireworks shows and coal-mining and fracking and palm oil and plastic water bottles by the gazillions. And like the way we use animals, what a Stanford Law online journal called “a leading cause of everything,” valuing their lives less than ours, raising them for their meat, their skin, their secretions, using them in laboratories or for our entertainment.

It’s about that, about all that.

And then it is about us raising our voices, calling out the injustices and unsustainabilities, and learning to live a new way — as partners, even as partners with trees, or rivers, or pigs — or horses that can’t yet stand on their own wobbly legs.

Happy Derby, y’all.

 

church, state, excuses and pretenses

Last night, the mayor held a town hall meeting here in Flint, which got ugly. You could argue that it was predestined to get ugly, given that it was about water, that people are still paying high rates for poisonous water, and that there is now an encampment in the city of people from outside the city whose mission has become water protecting/protesting, support/agitation, depending on whom you ask.

But the likelihood of ugly was increased by animosity of police, and by an administration that seems committed to avoiding questions and insisting its judgment be accepted on its face, an administration that doesn’t well countenance dissent.

If you want ugly, turns out, it’s not that hard to manufacture.

Today, in the post-mortem, folks are mostly blaming the venue. The town hall event was held at a church, which has led to cries across the city of “What about church and state?” A church isn’t the place for such a thing, they say. “Why not city hall?”

To be clear, the problem wasn’t that the event was held at a church, but that it was fashioned as church event. Indeed, after what was reported as a prelude of church music, the mayor began by “giving praises to my lord and savior,” by acknowledging all the clergy in attendance, by calling on one pastor to offer a (lengthy and quite sectarian) prayer, followed by a brief announcement from the police chief that un-church-like behaviors such as swearing or men wearing hats would not be permitted, and could in fact lead to expulsion or arrest. Which expulsion and arrests did, in fact, happen. The only thing that could have made it more church-y would have been to take up an offering.

“What about church and state?”

What about it?

The building isn’t the problem. City leadership is the problem.

As pastor of a congregation active in city issues, a congregation at home in a building often used for community events, and as a long-time pastor of churches where community things happen, let me say this: “church and state” is hardly ever about buildings.

Church buildings have a long, long history of usefulness as community venues – health fairs, polling places, town halls such as last night’s, community theatre, “meet the candidate” non-partisan events, “know your rights” forums, voter registrations, food pantries, non-religious day cares, parenting classes.

At Woodside, we have welcomed film-screenings, panel discussions, community forums and festivals, news conferences, protest staging, social service intake interviews, book groups, and a host of other important community events. When the water crisis was just becoming apparent, we invited multiple city and state leaders for conversation, as we tried to understand the situation.

Granted, we choose these community events based on our vision of the common good (so white supremacists, anti-Islam, anti-semitic or anti-LGBT groups would not be allowed to rally in our space), but we do not require folks to adopt a certain set of beliefs or behaviors to attend these vital community functions.

Church buildings are not the problem.

Conversely, I would argue, churches have a responsibility to be available for community events, given the reality that we pay zero property taxes – ZERO property taxes – for the space we take up and the community’s services we use, including the police, the fire and ems, street lights and sidewalks, and clean water (hypothetically). We are exempt from all these costs, and I believe we owe something back to the community that allows us to exist on its dime. Church buildings, then, belong, at least in part, to the commons. If you want to tackle the “church and state” problem, better would be to start with reforming our tax laws so our communities are no longer underwriting our religious existence.

“No hats in church” may be a righteous rule for a church event, depending on the church, but it is not a fair rule – or perhaps even a constitutional one – to impose on folks who just want to hear from their mayor. Why not prohibit tattoos or afros or piercings or leggings or paisley?

“No swearing” may be reasonable for a church, although I’ve been known to swear myself, even from the pulpit, as have some of the most powerful preachers I know; but it is a ridiculous (and, again, perhaps unconstitutional) line to draw when you’re dealing with people who are still, three years later, unable to use their water. We’ve flat run out of nice.

The mayor has a responsibility to be accessible – which means making herself available in the least restrictive environment possible. As soon as she takes her official seat in a public forum, wherever it is located, that space becomes an extension of the mayor’s office, which is itself a public space, a space belonging to all of us, a space where no one set of faith-based sensibilities gets to make the rules.

There is a lot to worry about in Flint, including the state of our water and the state of our democracy. But to lay the blame wholesale at the church door is an utter misdirection and lets our city leaders off the hook.

And, if you think we still need to be respectful of a host congregation’s faith, I’d like to point to the undisputed center of the Church’s faith, the presumed model for Christian living: a man regularly criticized for his manners when what really bothered the authorities was his politics.

 

feeling sort of intolerant, myself

When Barack Obama was inaugurated for the first time back in 2009, he wanted very badly to be the conciliatory one, the person who would somehow entice everyone to play together. His relationship with the LGBT community was still a little if-fy, and he hadn’t yet “evolved” to unabashed support for marriage equality. We knew we couldn’t count on him to lead on this issue. I wasn’t sure what he would do about ENDA, the federal legislation that would prohibit discrimination in employment, (first introduced in 1994); and then there were still issues of public accommodation and housing. All of which, in 2017, is still up for grabs.

(And it’s not looking good for the foreseeable future, as Mr. Trump looks for ways to thread the homophobia needle; at this moment, he is expected to uphold the non-discrimination executive order, but issue another supporting faith-based bigotry, a nice little work-around for those who wish gay people would go away – a prime agenda item of his VP, and consistent with the Hobby Lobby decision of his SCOTUS nominee. Whatever Trump’s current declared intent, we all know that could change, given his short attention span and shifting priorities.)

Anyway, in that first inaugural, so intent was President-elect Obama on creating a space for everyone, he invited purpose-driven Rick Warren to pray during the ceremony.

Rick Warren, you may remember, pastor of one of the largest churches in the world, had been opposed to equal rights for the LGBT community for a long time, had been outspoken about his opposition to marriage equality, had compared homosexuality to incest and pedophilia, had mobilized his massive and massively conservative congregation’s political muscle to oppose LGBT rights, and had supported Ugandan leaders, who advocated the death penalty for gays and lesbians.

All of which is to say that I, with a whole lot of other LGBT folks and allies, was incensed that this enemy of gay participation in the world would be honored on the dais of a presidential inauguration.

According to CNN, an Obama spokesperson said “This is going to be the most inclusive, open, accessible inauguration in American history.”

In conversations about that with others, some folks noted it was important to “bring all sides to the table,” and when we objected, they mocked the LGBT commitment to “the diversity we always talk about.”

How can you value diversity and be so intolerant?

My answer then and now: the opposite of gay is not anti-gay. The opposite of gay is straight. Diversity means inviting gay and straight and folks all along the non-binary spectrum of sexual identity into participation and conversation; it does NOT mean giving airtime to bigotry. And it certainly doesn’t mean giving an honored moment on a historic day to the mouthpiece of those who would oppress any part of the American populace.

We are under no obligation to hand the mic to bigotry or give credibility to willful ignorance. Yes, the constitution prevents the government from suppressing their opinions, but that doesn’t mean we have to endorse it or amplify it, as if bound by whatever ridiculous distortion of “tolerance.” President-elect Obama was being nice — to a flaw; I think nice is overrated and often counterproductive.

I mention this because there was a news item this week about Steve Bannon, the white supremacist leading the Trump White House. It turns out he is a graduate of Virginia Tech, a noble university, and the source of Flint’s earliest and strongest allies in the poison water epoch. (Full disclosure: my partner is a VT grad; go Hokies.) The news article was about a letter circulating on campus and gaining thousands of signatures, asking the administration to create some distance between VT and Bannon. Perhaps they could at the very least issue a statement that white supremacy isn’t the aspiration VT wants for its students? But the administration has so far declined.

Quoted in the Collegiate Times: “Why would Virginia Tech go out and make a statement disavowing anybody? It doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t understand the logic and the reasoning of what you’re asking,” Owczarski (Assistant VP for University Relations) said. “Who are we to determine any of that stuff? He is who he is. We’ll allow his actions and his works to speak for themselves — as we do with all our alums.”

But apparently that isn’t exactly the case, as VT has previously commented at length about folks of whom they are especially proud. In that context, perhaps declaring yourself un-proud as a university is an equally fair and reasonable thing to do.

But here’s the other thing: the Collegiate Times, under a photo of Bannon, identified him as an “award-winning filmmaker.” I searched the google and couldn’t find reference to any award. But even if he had won Something Somewhere from Someone for some work, identifying him in this way lends credibility to his platform, which the VT student/faculty letter calls “sinister and reckless.” With which many of us would agree.

Now, Virginia Tech surely isn’t the university ever to face this – or to face it now. I imagine even the Ivy Leagues have former students they’d like to disown. (My own alma mater — the University of South Carolina– also graduated Lee Atwater, the political architect of the Reagan years.) Critics of education may suggest without the slightest hint of irony that such a disowning would not be good for academic freedom, as if they give a nickel’s worth of damn about academic freedom. I, personally, think it would be helpful if American institutions that are supposed to promote critical thinking would exercise and model it, make it their purpose to tell us where they see it failing.

Now, here’s why it matters. It is possible that you, my people on the left, are being regularly challenged by friends and trolls on the right, who admonish your intolerance of “opposing views.”

So I want to tell you that you have no obligation to give space to bigotry or to consider right-wing hatred as a legitimate opinion worthy of the public discourse. Even tolerance (about as minimal a bar as there can be) doesn’t require us to give bigotry a platform, or to normalize it, or even to acknowledge whatever accolades it may be awarded from its own ilk (unless the point is to discredit the unrighteous award-giver).

Diversity means valuing all the richness and variety of creation; it has nothing to do with equal time for haters.

Conciliation isn’t our obligation right now. Truth and clarity are.

 

How did I end up agreeing with the Christian right?

A few years ago in Louisville, during a battle over a state constitutional amendment to ban marriage between people of the same gender, a church got involved. I actually imagine a lot of churches were involved, but this one church was large and loud, a far-right congregation, spiritual home of the moneyed, suburban, business class. It dominated the conversation with billboards, put a lot of money into “traditional marriage” defense, and made these awful bumper stickers of stick figures and arithmetic. The congregation empowered and amplified the voices of other like-minded churches, and together they owned the issue. The amendment passed, not surprisingly. Maybe it would have anyway, but it wasn’t even close.

The perennial criticism – then and now – is that churches should stay out of politics. It is a common cry for those on the left, who are less likely to be coalesced around a faith agenda. “Separation of church and state!” they/we would cry. And then bemoan the theocracy we perceive to be arising in plain view.

This past week, still reeling from an inauguration that threatens to undo America, I’ve been thinking.

The rise of Trump was fueled in part by Christian fundamentalists, who have, for decades, railed against any sin of a Democrat but given pass after pass after pass to its own beloved champions. (Remember Newt’s multiple marriages? Henry Hyde’s “youthful indiscretion”? We all can recite the litany of hypocrisy.)

Religion, say those who don’t claim one, is a devotion of convenience or personal taste, and ought to be left out of civic discussions. Instead, we have just experienced an inauguration bloated with Christian prayers, Christian scripture, calls to follow Jesus, and announcements of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) blessing the god-anointed Mr Trump.

I paced in my house this week and considered the ways I’d like the religious right to keep out of it – the critiques I have of them for pushing their abhorrent faith into public policy. I hate the way they use scripture to make their case: to justify their xenophobia; to justify stealing people’s lands; to repress women, oppress immigrants, justify racial disparities; to outlaw LGBT humans, murder those convicted of something, keep poor people poor. I hate it, whatever religion they are fundamentally adhering to (or co-opting). The Christians are just more in my face these days.

But, then I thought to myself, I do the same. It is my faith that drives my vision of the common good. Oh yeah, I read those bible stories through vastly different eyes, take away wildly different lessons. But it is surely scripture that undergirds my public participation.

So, there are some things I have in common with the religious right (she said, begrudgingly). Not religion-based inaugurations; I think state ceremonies ought to be prayer free, though I am certain that people of faith can and should gather in their own houses of worship to pray for the nation and beg for a righteous vision. I just don’t think state events should be religious events. It’s not fair to our American electorate – a people of many faiths or no expressed faith at all. We are a nation, not a congregation. Thus it should be.

But the cries to keep faith out of public life should perhaps extend no farther than the officialdom of the January 20 barricades on the National Mall. Here’s why: we all believe something. We all have some foundation for what we hold to be true and just. For our nation, we have the constitution, the declaration of independence; but we – all. of. us. – interpret and augment those national tenets with other, more personal or partisan, manifestos. Statements of faith. The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Barmen Declaration; the Communist Manifesto; Dr. King’s speeches; FDR’s 3rd Inaugural Address or Reagan’s first; the Geneva Conventions; the Kyoto Protocols; the Paris Accords; BillBoard Top 40, or what my grandmother always used to say, or the Kama Sutra; whatever. We all have, we all rightfully get to have, our own inspirations, the movements or documents or traditions that define for us what a just and good world should look like.

So here is where the Christian right and I begin to converge. We have the bible.

For the religious right (of whatever religion), their vision is from their sacred books; so is mine. For the religious right, their faith informs their politics; so does mine. For them, quoting scripture is authoritative; it is for me, too. I unapologetically hate their vision of the world. My own theological angst is, in part, that such a vision could be gleaned from sacred scripture in the first place.

So, the divergence, then, comes quickly: we choose different sacred texts (or different parts of the same bible) and rely on an altogether different way of reading.

There is a battle going on for the heart of America, with ripples that lap every shore around the world. In so many ways, people of faith are driving the conversation. But the answer is not to try to keep faith quiet; the answer is for people of a more open faith to be as prominent and insistent as the ones who claim exclusive blessing and act out their awful faith-based tyranny. We must empower and amplify the voices of the left.

Our fallacy is in believing that the faith-basis of our love of diversity and inclusion should be excised from our political imagination. It cannot; it should not. There are more liberals than faith-based fundamentalists in America. In the ranks of people of faith around the world, there are more of us – people of faith willing to share the world and ensure that it works for all its inhabitants. But if the right seems to be the side that’s growing, perhaps it is because we aren’t as good at sharing our stories and describing what’s at stake.

When we keep our faith silent, even out of a desire to be “tolerant,” we let the impression stand that the choice is between the religious right and the heathen left. Nothing could be further from the truth.

stray marks

I’ve just finished watching the inaugural, with its delusions and dog whistles, plus blatant calls for a right-wing-jesus kind of country. We are wading into something deep, the gravity of which we may not yet fully realize. The ramp up to this moment has been challenging for many, many of us.

In my office, there is a print of a painting done by Stephanie Bell Burke, an artist from North Carolina. Stephanie and I grew up in the same church in South Carolina, and have known each other about all our lives.

The painting is Einstein, the creative genius. I like it for a number of reasons. One, because I like creative geniuses. Also because in the painting, Einstein’s skin looks a little less white than usual, so this particular Einstein becomes a reminder that genius isn’t the bailiwick of just one bunch of folks. Third, because it is a little abstract, it engages me just a little differently each time I look at it; sure, in part it depends on my mood, but it also is about light and color and season and who knows what else.

einstein-by-burke-smToday, as we feel the sense of heaviness, a pall blanketing so much of our nation, here’s what I notice about the painting today: it is in many ways just a bunch of stray marks.

The field is the paper itself, which, in Stephanie’s artistry, becomes part of the image. It means all the other stuff gives shape and meaning to what’s really going on underneath. Art is as much about the “space between” as it is about the colors and images we add; then, the images we add do something to the field. I can draw squiggles; I’ve done that since I was a small child. But putting the squiggles together in a way that communicates something, in a way that changes what is true, that is the work of artists and poets.

It is also the work of activists, world-changers. Stray marks add up to something. Something Genius.

The word on a lot of minds this week is “resistance.” As our nation moves into a new chapter, with perhaps less confidence and stability than in previous transitions, we fear the promises this president has made, we fear the precedents he is setting, we fear the no-holds-barred approach the 117th Congress is adopting. Resistance is the order of the day for people of faith – resistance to those people and policies that would denigrate women, immigrants and refugees, gay and transgender men and women, people of color, people who are not Christian, people of lesser economic means. Resistance to the escalation of capitalism and corporatocracy, which are already eating us alive, and which are so inconsistent with biblical commands. Resistance is the word.

But if resistance is the call, then “how?” is the question. We are people of varied skills and gifts and ideas and interests; getting us all on the same page is tricky. Plus, we might say, we are a small church, or we just live in Flint, not at all near the seats of power, or we have little time. How are we to work together, or feel like our contributions matter?

And I look at Stephanie’s Einstein. A bunch of stray marks that come together to form powerful art. And even the background itself that becomes part of the image, not merely a canvas but part of the portrait.

This week, I’m taking my highest hope from the idea that we are the stray marks. What we do adds up to something, even if it seems small or remote. We have power to become the promising vision that the prophets told. We, together, are the artistry of the Creator. Genius.

(This essay is adapted mildly from my church newsletter this week. Stephanie Bell Burke’s work is hers alone, and I am thankful for permission to republish her image here. You can find more of her work available for purchase at http://www.artandsoul.pro.)

recounting

As you know by now, the Michigan vote recount was canceled by the courts, who apparently thought only a losing candidate has a stake in the integrity of a election. It’s way more than just “a pity,” but our energy is waning. We’re feeling a little worn. Which is, I fear, what the far right is counting on.

In other news, the Michigan House has passed one bill that makes it harder to vote without i.d. and another bill that imposes high fines on people and organizations participating in illegal demonstrations.

A while ago, along with hundreds of others over a period of months, I was arrested for demonstrating against apartheid too close to the South African embassy in Washington DC. Had we stayed outside some diplomatic perimeter, there would have been no violation, but perhaps nothing would have changed. As it was, the system of apartheid finally fell. Would I and others have demonstrated in the same manner under this proposed revision to Michigan law? I was a seminary student, and $1,000 would have been more than I could bear for that day. My seminary may not have been able — or inclined —  to pay the $10,000-per-day fine the bill would be billed to a sponsoring organization. Apartheid may have remained in affect for years. Decades.

Demonstration is a righteous thing. It changes things. Which is why “empire” tries really hard to make it illegal. With this action by the Michigan House, I wonder if we have simply become too far removed from the rebels and revolutionaries who wrote our national founding documents.

There is a seasonal banner making the church news feeds, a depiction of Mary and Joseph on the donkey, on the way to Bethlehem, the story we hear again at Christmas.

But we are certainly too far removed from those days. We look at the image and mostly see tired, sweet M & J, on their way to a peaceful manger, where they will be visited by angels, star-struck shepherds (really children in bathrobes from the saint-somebody church basement) and some wise men. “Wise Men Still Seek Him,” we hear it said.

Thus, we sugarcoat the journey and the “reason for the season.” They went because of a government requirement for tax or census or some other nonsense. It’s all about empire, about controlling people. Making life generally inconvenient, and stealing all the discretionary time that could be used for family care, earning a living or re-invigorating the common good. Wearing us out.

The banner, with its typical Christmas image, tries to remind us that the story is really about oppressed people forced to travel to a place where they would find no welcome. This is what the banner says: “immigrants and refugees welcome.”

The banner is resistance. The Christmas story, the Christmas legacy, is resistance. Maybe it’s just a story, lore and not recorded history; but it is something more than mythology. Faith stories give us hope, give us courage, give us direction.

So, I’m thinking.

For no reason I can imagine, I woke up this morning with Gulliver’s Travels on my mind. Swift wrote this 290 years ago, a critique of the British monarchy, a critique of humankind generally. Completely apart from whatever Swift was thinking when he wrote it, if I’m holding in my mind just the image of Gulliver waking up on a grassy knoll to find himself tied down with a bazillion tiny threads, I find myself pondering two things.

One, we are Gulliver, bound by a thousand things, any one of which we might fairly easily overcome. If we were only fighting for income equality, if only for marriage, if only for reproductive rights or voting rights, if only for black lives or trans dignity or native lands or flint water, if only, we might all work together and prevail in short order. We are bound by a thousand things; the strategy of empire is to overwhelm us with assaults and insults. The battles are many. As fast as we can cut one string, a dozen more are cast.

But, there is this, the reversal: if we are the little people, if Gulliver is “the system,” then we have way more power than we think over the large and overshadowing empire. We can subdue the beast, not with one large action, but with so very many small ones. The wins are small, hard to see, but sometimes we win. Standing Rock is the most recent reminder. Another is the new law here requiring compensation to those unjustly imprisoned. Sometimes we win.

Advent and Christmas are about resistance and reversals. (We’ll hear Mary sing it loud this Sunday.) So, yesterday I got a Christmas letter. It reminded me how often we are too far removed, from one another, from righteous a vision. It reminded me that “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us,” is just a theological word for divine solidarity. Solidarity, at its most godly, involves getting down into the dirt, because“human” means “of the dirt.” We are at our most human – and our most divine – when we are in the dirt together.

Lately, I’m trying to give to you what I find I need most – the encouragement and hope that things can get better, the hope for reversal. We are up against one hell of a beast, that’s for certain, and perhaps armed with only tiny bows and arrows. But we have those. And we have each other. Plus, God is with us.

(First published in Woodside World, the newsletter of Woodside Church of Flint, MI.)