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


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.)

standing rock: 24 hours, 2400 miles, 600 words.

Last week, more than 500 clergy and faith leaders from across the country converged at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, in support of the Sioux people and in solidarity with water protectors, protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. I and two members of Woodside Church of Flint were among them.

Folks may know that Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is the latest offense to a people who have long felt the effects of centuries-old conquest and colonization. It is also the latest offense against the rights of people to safe, accessible, affordable water – a fight the people of Flint and southeast Michigan know fairly well these days.

Folks may also know that the pipeline route was originally drawn through Bismarck, the state capital; because of fears of oil leaks and spills that could endanger the majority-white city’s water supply, the route was shifted perilously close to the Standing Rock Reservation – where the tribe has expressed the same fear of contaminated water, as well as its anger that the construction is already desecrating sacred land.

What is less commonly known is that the laws in the US undergirding our treatment of America’s “First People” derived from a proclamation of a pope in the mid-1400s, declaring that in the age of exploration, possession of “newly discovered” territories could be claimed by the first white Christians to get there. This Doctrine of Discovery continues to define US treatment of Native Americans five centuries later.

The Doctrine of Discovery was the centerpiece of our gathering at the Oceti Sakowin Camp. There, leaders of Christian churches took turns reading aloud their denominations’ statements of repudiation of the doctrine, and then a copy of the doctrine was burned in a symbolic rejection of such an egregious disregard for human rights.

After the fire, we walked in procession to the backwater bridge on highway 1806, the demarcation line held by a fairly massive law enforcement presence protecting the pipeline. With burned out vehicles blocking the bridge, and the realization that we were under constant surveillance, we prayed, sang and listened as others told stories; but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the heavily guarded highway bridge – a reminder that human rights in America continue to be quite tenuous.

The organizer of the event was adamant that this was not a time for confrontation or provocation. To our mostly white, mostly Christian group of leaders, including me (white and Christian), he said: Whatever you all instigate with law enforcement, the Indian people have to live with after you’re gone. But a small group of white people couldn’t help themselves. They called for interested folks to plan an “action,” with the intention of getting themselves arrested. And a dear friend, a black woman to whom I related this story, noted, “It’s like the doctrine of discovery acted out all over again. Just show up and take over.”

As I’m writing this, the people of Standing Rock are still standing; Virginia Tech researchers are in the midst of the latest round of water testing to tell us whether it is yet safe to drink the water in Flint; presidential election returns are shifting America to the right, white and Christian privilege showing its supremacist underbelly; and I’m not always sure how to be an ally.

Somehow we have to be in solidarity, to care for one another, to seek the common good, to know that wisdom is also a collective effort. The Doctrine of Discovery had to go. It still has to go. We have a lot to learn.

(This is one piece of an on-going reflection on the journey; for other thoughts and connections, you’re invited to listen to Sunday’s sermon, “Perfect Fit,” also posted on this site.)  

the end of democracy as we know it: why i’m voting 3rd party

You’re about to not like what I have to say.

I’m voting 3rd party.

Go ahead, criticize. Berate, vilify me. Tell me I’m about to bring the downfall of democracy as we know it. I’ve heard it already. From church people. School teachers. Trusted friends. My dentist. People I care about. All with good thoughts and reasons. Worthy of response. So I’ll try.

First, as have some of you, Bernie Sanders, my once and perhaps future political hero, has proclaimed “this is not the time for a protest vote.” But he knows better. He knows, because he has been a protester. He knows this is exactly the time for a protest vote.

It’s the time, for the same reason teachers don’t protest during summer break (that, and because they are probably working second jobs). The same reason Kaepernick didn’t wait to take a knee during the untelevised off-season. If you’re thinking this isn’t the time, maybe you’re also thinking that Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be shutting down streets during rush hour, and those bus boycotters back in the day should only have boycotted from 9 am to 5 pm – from just after they arrived at work until right before they needed to go home. Maybe they could have made a good enough statement by not riding the bus at all during the work day. (Except, of course, for the ones who worked nights and weekends, but they so often don’t count anyway.)

The right time, in fact, is precisely when there is most opportunity to have an impact.

But, say some, there is too much on the line. The hyperventilation is epidemic, as the party leaders try to save us from the sky that is falling (a little Munchausen-esque, if you ask me). Could you imagine Trump as president? No, but I didn’t nominate him. What about the Supreme Court? As my mother would have said about my own childhood bad choices, “you should have thought about that before.”

Then there’s my favorite: you have to work within the system. But the system is the very problem. The system is exterminating and imprisoning black men. The system is exploiting immigrant labor while making immigrants a perennial political punching bag. The system is feeding our ever-growing addiction to poor people, while pretending to give a damn that people are poor. The system is gorging itself on corporate wealth, while pretending to care about income inequality. The system is distorting, dismantling and manipulating our communities and populations, to ensure its own longevity. The system is broken. And for the record, we who voted in the primaries did try to work within the system. The system swatted us away like gnats and went back to what it was doing. The Democratic party part of the system anointed its candidate before the voters spoke, then demanded we pledge allegiance.

Perhaps, at this moment, you believe I’ve wandered from astute political observer to wild-eyed conspiracy theorist. That could be true. Maybe you’re just bothered that my vote matters more than yours. I live in a swing state, so this may also be true. Michigan is one to watch. And if you’re mad that my vote matters more than yours, please keep in mind that I didn’t create that reality either. My preference would be for all votes to matter (just as I wish all lives mattered, but they don’t). I especially wished that in the years I voted in South Carolina, Texas and Kentucky. But that’s not the system we have.

I keep thinking of Lucy, Charlie Brown and that elusive football. Or, less entertaining, a family, a dysfunctional family, in which a single unproductive member regularly spends the rent money on something that is not rent, and then begs for more. That family member isn’t likely to do anything different as long as the replacement rent money keeps appearing – as long as the system keeps covering for his bad behavior, even while believing that this time will be different. But why would he change anything? He gets to behave badly with no consequences. So a healthy family may have to make the very painful decision to change its own behavior, even if it means seeing the beloved child living on the street. (Now I’ve lost your endorsement as a parent, too.) If you want something to be different, you have to do something different.

Those who benefit from our poisonous political system can’t be expected to change anything at all. The DNC wants us to believe they have nominated the person most likely to reform the system, but that’s a lie. Secret speeches to wealthy donors and lobbyists should be our clearest assurance that the DNC is as committed as ever to the system we have.

And if that doesn’t convince you, consider the numbers of Republicans announcing they’ll vote Democratic this time. A testament to how far right the DNC has moved. Rest assured, those GOP loyalists are getting what they want: a candidate who speaks to their issues, far afield of the Common Good.

The party plea to “elect us so we can fix this,” or “give us what we want and we’ll change next time,” rings hollow; next time never comes. At some point, mentally healthy people just refuse to participate in a fucked-up system. If this were a family system and we were in therapy, you know that’s what the therapist would say.

Now, it is possible you’re blaming all this 3rd party talk on “young Bernie supporters” who are new to the political process, who don’t have any patience, who need to grow up and learn how the real world works. Folks are saying a lot of that. But that’s not me. I’m middle-aged. I’m not naïve or ignorant. I’ve been through some election cycles. I’ve been a faithful Democrat and I’ve trusted the party. But it just keeps getting worse, as the party keeps moving further and further to the right. And I’m tired of the same old shit.

I live in a swing state now, and this is the most attention my vote has ever gotten. This may be the only time in my life that my vote matters at all. Of course I’m going to try to use it to change the system. Even if it threatens to bring down democracy as we know it. In fact, that’s pretty much what I’m hoping for.

It’s why I ever bother to vote at all.