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.

star-spangled and all

This Wednesday, September 14, is the 202th anniversary of the writing of the Star Spangled Banner, a song that became America’s national anthem in 1931, more than 100 years after it was written, another bit of Herbert Hoover’s legacy.

I quit singing the national anthem more than 25 years ago. It is hard to sing, for sure; but moreover, I have had no taste for the militarism and dominance on which it is founded and which it spews. Plus, “the land of the free and the home of the brave” has never really rung true for me, as a lesbian lacking both civil rights and courageous political leaders who would be allies in the pursuit. America just doesn’t seem all that brave to me. We consistently avoid difficult conversations and strategic changes that would make life better for a lot of people, just because we’re afraid. “Land of the free, home of the brave” doesn’t describe America as I know it.

So I quit singing.

Colin Kaepernick is a pro football player who has also quit singing, choosing instead to sit or take a knee during each pre game rendition of the anthem. Colin has quit singing, and people are paying attention.

Two things have happened.

First, some people got mad. Began criticizing, vilifying, threatening him.

Second, some other people followed his lead. A small-but-growing group of athletes, some young students, run-of-the-mill Americans have seen a bravery and honesty in him that is inspiring them to ask questions, to review the lesser known lyrics of this patriotic song. People are paying attention. It’s how change happens.

This Wednesday, besides the birthday of this song, is also a little-noticed festival in the Church, Holy Cross Day, a day for remembering a key event of Christianity, the execution of Jesus.

But something happened to Jesus’ legacy along the way – much like so many other martyrs for causes: he got cleaned up. Co-opted. Reduced to bland, inoffensive nothingness. Our Jesus who resisted oppressive political systems, railed against unjust economic systems, demonstrated against military occupation, broke laws, rebelled against customs, cursed and called names, this Jesus was executed for conspiracy against the state, executed for being a problem. Crosses weren’t for swell guys that encouraged complacency. They were for troublemakers who weren’t going to take it anymore. That’s the paradox of Holy Cross. Sacred Insurrection.

Before the star-spangled banner, there was another song, several, in fact, all unofficially anthems of America. America, the Beautiful; My Country ‘Tis of Thee; Hail, Columbia. Maybe you’d prefer one of these as a “national anthem.”

In the African American tradition, the song often called the “Black national anthem” is “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which moves me to tears, so raw and honest it is:

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty…
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our parents sighed?

And in the New Century Hymnal, there is this other that we’ve sung twice this summer:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is,
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine

There is a measure of humility in that song, which is not evident in the Star-Spangled Banner. How nice it would be to sing a song of national pride that doesn’t dwell on superiority, power or warfare.

This past Sunday, for Labor Day, we sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land,” with its equitable and hopeful refrain: “this land was made for you and me.” We even included the more stirring lyrics that usually get left out:

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple,
by the welfare office, I saw my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking:
Is this land made for you and me?

The thing is, we have choices. Things change. Life invites pondering. I’m appreciative of Colin Kaepernick for his brave act of sitting out this ugly song. Songs of country are not necessarily songs of faith in our secular nation; but the songs we sing tell us something about ourselves, about what we value, where we stand, how we live, the community we’d like to be.

Sunday was Rally Day at Woodside and so many churches, and it really all relates. Not in a “hate America” way, which some folks will assume from this writing; but in a “permission to figure it out” kind of way, which is the best kind of faith tradition. Permission to learn and grow and change and grow and change again and more. Including the songs that define our faith, including the songs that declare and command our greatest allegiances.

This Sunday, we began a new round of faith exploration for children and adults.The children continue learning the stories of faith; adults are exploring new connections between the faith we profess (faith which is ever evolving) and the lives that we live. In our worship, we continue to explore songs of faith, songs which help us express our deepest longings and greatest hopes.

Things keep changing. We keep singing.

But this doesn’t change: we are Woodside. And as always, you are welcome. Whatever your song.


(This first appeared in Woodside World, the newsletter of Woodside Church of Flint, MI)

unidentifiable remains (the church, post-orlando)

I was fascinated a few years ago when the remains of King Richard III were found under a parking lot in England. Richard died in 1485; I was amazed anything identifiable still remained at all.

This week, there is news of other royal remains: archeologists believe Henry I may rest under another parking lot in another city in England. Henry died in 1135 of food poisoning. He gorged himself on his favorite unhealthy stuff, and then he died.

There is a lesson in here.

But first, it’s worth sharing a couple of tidbits from the news story of the discovery, the details of Henry’s reign, recounted on the website of the History Channel. Discussing Henry’s ascendancy, usurping the higher claim of his older brother, the story says,

“Henry proved to be an effective, if repressive, ruler, strengthening the monarchy and establishing a rigid administrative system that kept the realm functioning efficiently. He also stood out for his rampant womanizing; he fathered some two dozen illegitimate children, more than any other British monarch in history. In one gruesome incident, Henry is said to have let two of his own granddaughters be mutilated (their eyes poked out and the tips of their noses cut off) as part of a political quarrel.”

None of that surprises me, politics of the dark and middle ages being what they were. (And I’m not sure why I just relegated that to those “less enlightened” times.) Henry was a power broker, a power monger, a political animal. Power is a drug, and Henry’s bad behaviors could all be symptoms of his addiction.

The story went on to tell how they think he may have ended up in a parking lot. There used to be a church there, Henry’s favorite. He was buried at the church, under the altar. Four hundred years later, the church was torn down, when Henry VIII had a fit of anti-Catholicism. Three hundred years after that, a prison was built on the site. Which eventually included ample parking.

And then, this, my favorite part of the story, recounting the mullings of the historian leading the search: “Henry was a reforming king and would have been fascinated by the idea of cars and transport, and may well have liked being buried under a car park,” Mullaney told the (New York) Times. On the other hand, he continued, “He was a religious man and so I think he would have preferred being buried in a church.”

So, to recap, Henry allowed a political rival to poke his granddaughters’ eyes out. But he was a religious man and wanted to be buried in the church.

This week, lesbian, gay, transgender and other queer folks are still reeling from a massacre of 50 of us in an Orlando nightclub, and many of our families and allies are still grieving the loss of life – as well, perhaps, as the loss of their own innocent belief that LGB people’s battles are done. (Even the most insulated would have a hard time hiding from the battle over bathrooms waged openly against our transgender brothers and sisters.)

And we mourn and pray and shake our heads, and wonder whether anything will ever be different, whether we will ever regain any sense of responsibility to one another or any sense of national well-being or human equilibrium. Signs are not good.

And then this: a Tennessee lawmaker is giving away two assault rifles, similar to the ones used in the slaughter, giving them away as door prizes at a fund-raising event. To be fair, he had already announced the event (with one AR-15 door prize) BEFORE the patrons of the Pulse nightclub were terrorized and executed. But after the shooting, he changed his plans. He decided to give away a second weapon. “I’m sick and tired of the media and liberal politicians attacking our right to keep and bear arms,” he posted on Facebook.

On a hunch, I googled the legislator and learned he has previously drafted anti-gay legislation.

I also learned he is a deacon in his Baptist church.

In other news, the Washington Post told of a Sacramento pastor who posted a sermon online decrying the fact that the shooter in Orlando didn’t get them all.

“People say, like: ‘Well, aren’t you sad that 50 sodomites died?’…. Um, no, I think that’s great. I think that helps society. You know, I think Orlando, Fla., is a little safer tonight…. The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die. The tragedy is — I’m kind of upset that he didn’t finish the job!”

One could say none of this is surprising. Even as a package, it is so, so common. “Good Christian” equals anti-gay, pro-gun. It’s practically the American way.

I think about Henry I. He died of food poisoning, and probably not unrelated to his power addiction. “He was a religious man and would have wanted to be buried in a church,” said the historian, though he sacrificed his granddaughters to mutilation for some political gain. He gorged himself on his favorite unhealthy stuff, and then he died of food poisoning.

And I think about the Church, the remains of Jesus. The abominable ways we read scripture, the distorted tales we tell of the early church, the misguided perception we have of Jesus’ own life, the way we often usurp a higher claim. Are we complicit? Do we just continue to gorge ourselves, poison ourselves, on unhealthy stuff to our own detriment? How do we mutilate the body of Christ for power, political or otherwise?

Given our history, and as with Henry, I am amazed anything identifiable still remains at all.

So this is what I mean when I lift up the biblical theology of “remnant” — the Christ-like identifiable remains. In our world, there are still faithful people, people of all faiths, who are not an embarrassment to God. Let us strive ever to be among them.

jesus at gunpoint

I had a day yesterday of not liking people very much. Among other things, I was told about an exciting new ministry (not in Flint) with which I surely should find a way to partner. They do such good stuff, you know. Feeding people, sharing hot drinks on cold days, playing basketball with children, making people feel at home. All of which is great, and all of which is done by thousands of organizations across the country. But this organization is different, and I’ll forego the partnership, thanks.

First, I read the ministry’s mission statement, which, by the way, isn’t really a mission statement. It says something like “we exist to do things consistent with our mission.” So does Wells Fargo. So does the US Army. Neither of which is a community-based ministry, despite what they may say on the commercials and recruiting posters.

Next, I watched a short video of the leader, and learned how God had led him to this ministry and given him a building. In a neighborhood not unlike much of Flint, the community center was cheap and the seller threw in the house next door for free. Which surely must be God, and not the ravages of a rigged economy. I’m sure God won’t mind taking the credit/blame yet again.

Then, I read the sparse info on the still under-development website, and learned that the minister’s goal was to inject all the people with the love of Jesus. Which sounds violent and painful. And made me think of all the other missions and ministries which inject people with various things, like English and western clothing and iPhones and capitalism and revisionist history, often in the name of Jesus. All the ways that we’ve colonized so many peoples over the history of Christianity. Yes, we say, we’ll bring grain and bibles, and make sure you’re nourished on our food and our religion. Yes, we’ll provide powdered baby formula in a country where there is a dearth of clean water. Just sign this irrevocable loan agreement and hand over the keys to your future. Yes, we’ll provide whatever you need, in exchange for you becoming more like us, more open to our co-opting of your resources and commodities for our global trade needs, and more attentive to an eventual heaven rather than the desirability of a temporal revolution.

Then I found out they are “partnering” with the local public elementary school, doing God knows what, while taking  pictures of the children for their social media use. Because parents living in poverty don’t have enough to worry about, don’t have to face down enough threats to their children’s security. But who has money for an attorney, and why would anyone expect to afford the same consideration – that is, legal right – to those parents as to their more economically resourced white, suburban counterparts? They are merely fodder for our feel-good; they should appreciate all that we’re doing for them. Hundreds of Christmas presents, after all. Plus the hot chocolate and basketball.

Next I learned they are bankrolled by a giant congregation that seems to delight in establishing a similar presence in vulnerable neighborhoods across the region. All the while gathering CEOs of far-too-wealthy corporations and thousands of members who reliably vote for purveyors of the conservative social policies that got us into this mess to start with. A sort of whacked out economic Munchausen’s syndrome by spiritual proxy. It’s all pretty screwed up. Pretty exploitative. Like colonialism but without the need for vaccinations or a passport.

Then, God provided me with a real-life metaphor. Apparently, according to a Christian news outlet, the leader of this ministry encountered a burglar in his kitchen, and while he waited for the police, he talked to the burglar about the love of Jesus. While holding him at gunpoint.

Jesus at gunpoint. When ministries use human need as an opportunity to force religious dogma.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this, except to say this: some people may think Woodside Church isn’t really Christian, doesn’t talk enough about Jesus, is too accepting of other faiths, isn’t really religious enough. But I think the way we do faith here is more consistent with Jesus himself than so many things that get done in his name. We have questions here, about everything. We try to meet human need where we can, and we work to make connections among the political, societal and spiritual parts of our lives. We live a public faith that is continually under construction, continually seeking ways to strengthen the common good and repair a world shredded by insatiable self-dealing, including our own.

Maybe we could do more. And maybe we will, as our mission continues to evolve in response to our changing city. But I think Flint needs us, a challenging voice clear about the emperor’s lack of clothing, a welcoming place for people to be themselves.

Always welcome, and never at gunpoint.


(This appears today in Woodside World, the newsletter of Woodside Church, Flint, MI)

the rabbit hole

There’s a series on Hulu I’ve fallen for lately, only 8 episodes, so not too much of a distraction. It is called 11.22.63, which, of course, is the day Kennedy was shot and killed in Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

The short story is that Jake, a high school and adult ed teacher from Maine in 2015, learns through a friend about a time portal, the “rabbit hole,” through which he can travel back to October 1960. The friend, dying from cancer as a result of Agent Orange, persuades Jake to go back and prevent the assassination, to prevent the ramp-up in Vietnam, which he blamed on Johnson, and so ultimately to prevent the friend’s cancer. So Jake tries it. And without ruining the whole thing for you, I can tell you this lesson he learned pretty quickly: when you try to change the past, the past pushes back.

I’ve been thinking about that, not so much because I believe in time travel (although there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know and am not willing to write off), but because of things we can’t see that try to make us conform, that try to keep us from causing “trouble.”

In social and political discourse, we refer to the “system,” and in some corners, folks still talk about “the man.” In this electoral season, it’s “the establishment.” As in the parties, PACS and profiteers that control us, that write the social equation to their own benefit, that won’t take no for an answer.

At both ends of the political spectrum, there is a disgruntled bunch saying “no” and trying to make it stick. The ones on the far right and the ones on the far left have only this in common: an acute awareness that something isn’t working. Of course, we don’t agree on what isn’t working, much less how to fix it, but each edge has embraced what it considers an off-the-radar candidate to carry its flag.

Now, you know me, and you know I believe the right has it wrong. You probably could guess that I don’t think the left is nearly left enough. I get this from scripture. So, let’s concede that I’m out of the mainstream, the 80 percent in the middle where candidates will duke it out in the general election.

But from that vantage point, here’s what I see: people challenging the system, and the system fighting back. Against the people. Like this:

– Disenfranchising voters. Voter ID laws that confuse and manipulate; voting machines that don’t work, or ballot shortages in critical precincts; voters inclined a particular way finding their party affiliation changed or their names inexplicably dropped from the rolls; people of color, captured their own communities and hauled off to some other, whiter, community where they won’t have a right to vote or where their personhood will be counted differently;

– Tilting media coverage. I know. I can’t believe I ever doubted this, but it has been so blatant this season as to give me chills. After the debate here, CNN’s clips on the post-debate show were manipulated to flip the story about who got the most applause; after one recent
primary, the tabulations of the less desirable, but winning, candidate were on the screen, but it was the face of the one who lost, the establishment’s choice, which was shown prominently on the screen, perhaps to boost the public impressions of the candidate’s strength. Writers I trust seem to have given up on their long-held ideals, suddenly jumping on some other bandwagon. Is it because they’re syndicated by major corporations? Even facebook seems to be manipulating coverage; watch what “trends,” and tell me if you think I’m wrong.

It could be that I’m just a jaded conspiracy theorist. Or it could be that the establishment is in full defense mode. Because the system isn’t working and people are catching on.

Establishment. System. The man. Big Pharma. Wall Street. In church, we call them the powers and principalities. And some would add “church” to the list.

No good for you, no good for me.

Paul, the apostle, wrote that our fight is not against people, but against the forces of self-absorption, against the powers and principalities. With all due respect to Paul, the powers and principalities are a system made of people, not just unidentifiable energy or auras or karma. Actual people.

Three folks I trust read advance copies of this newsletter and all three told me it didn’t really go anywhere. One said she felt me holding back. I am. Because I’m trying to say something about the system that isn’t about a particular candidate.

So here’s the truth: I feel manipulated. Bottom line is that the system has an agenda and I’m in the way. So are you, FYI. We are component parts, and we are being sold off for parts. I’m not against having a system. But I am against one that uses, exploits and manipulates us. The system we have has steered far off course. I resent the system that seems to have decided well in advance who will be our next president and how life will go for the foreseeable future, even before we’re done voting.

“Rabbit holes,” they say, are metaphors for disorienting, nonsensical realities. And I’m looking at the rabbit hole we’re being asked to jump into, and I’m disgusted and angry. More than any other political season.

But if “rabbit hole” is a way of talking about disorienting or nonsensical realities, perhaps “resurrection” is the way of describing the antidote — the only thing that makes any sense at all.

So I guess I would like to say that voting is part of a resurrected life. So are donating, and organizing and protesting and boycotting and choosing animals from a shelter instead of from a breeder and questioning where food comes from and challenging the tax benefits of a Panamanian life.

In a system that likes keeping all the power for itself, maybe resurrection is just life fighting back.



(This appears today in Woodside World, the newsletter of Woodside Church, Flint, MI)

no cigarette required

There was a moment in the Democratic Presidential Debate Sunday night which I’ve been pondering since. A question that dogs me. It was this: Don Lemon of CNN asked both candidates to name their racial blind spots. You can grade their responses for yourself, but I think they both stumbled. And I’ve been asking myself since then what my own racial blind spot is, or more likely, what they areplural. 

My first instinct was to discount the question. “Blind spots” seem by definition to be things we don’t know, can’t see. “What can’t you see?” is a question with no answer, unless someone with vision is standing with me to describe it. So the only way to name my own blind spot is to trust my guide to tell me what I’m missing. I am thankful for those in my life who have helped me along the way, and trust there will be others to come along as well. I hope I am always open to their experience and wisdom.

My second instinct was to re-tool the question. Perhaps “blind spot” isn’t the right phrase. Maybe “shortcoming” would be a better descriptor for me. What are my racial short-comings? That may be a question I am more able to ponder, though it is still painful to consider. I know I have them. I just have a hell of a time mustering the vulnerability required in naming them out loud.

In any event, the question was Mr. Lemon’s and I have no right to judge or rewrite his question. So perhaps my shortcoming is the inclination to answer the question I wish had been asked. Certainly there has been no shortage of that in any of the debates.

Still, I give the candidates credit for trying. I had the feeling they wanted to be honest, wanted to bare their souls, to stand with, rather than over and against. For that, I’m appreciative. I’m also white, which I know affects the way I hear the question and evaluate the answer.

While I search for insight, I also ponder the meta-question. The process. And that’s the conversation in my head I’ve been encouraged by a colleague to write about.

So, there’s a story I’m remembering. It may be urban legend, or based on some real encounter. Khrushchev and someone, Nixon, perhaps, or Kennedy or Eisenhower or Cronkite. I was young. But here’s what happened: someone asked Khrushchev a thoughtful question. And Khrushchev calmly lit a cigarette before answering. Slowly, deliberately, he lit a cigarette. And then took a long drag and expelled the smoke. Then, he answered the question. When the story was told to a young me, it was with the revelation that the cigarette wasn’t the point; the point was having time to think.

Quiet has been a theme for me this Lent. Specifically a hunger for it.

I’m not sure we are always willing to give one another time to think. At the debate, candidates had 60 seconds or maybe 90 seconds to make a coherent statement of national importance. The only way to do that, we think, is to know in advance what we will say when the expected questions come. It leaves no room for the unexpected, no time to think. In fact, we criticize candidates who need time to think, supposing that it means they don’t know, aren’t prepared to be commander in chief. But I think of the state of the world, and I would really like to know that we can count on our leaders to be thoughtful people, ready to sit quietly and work it through, whatever it is.

So I’m thinking about how often we fill the emptiness, as if stricken by an allergy to quiet, how often we talk over each other, or how often we assume that needing a moment to think is a character flaw, indicative of a lack of knowing. Khrushchev lit a cigarette. And the one asking the question waited respectfully.

What are your racial blind spots? It is a serious question that needs reflection, and I would applaud the candidate or leader or colleague or average voter willing to ponder it at length.

It’s a difficult topic, a painful topic, but we won’t get anywhere with platitudes or memorized answers. We need to hear, to think, to consider and reconsider. Such is the stuff of learning.

What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be white? Or gay or straight or transgender or from the South or from Middle East? There no way to know unless we talk. And listen. And think.

So that’s where I am. And if you are willing to be in that conversation with me, I’ll welcome your kind and gentle insights.

Help me see. Expect me to stumble. And give me time to think.