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.



vesuvius trump

If you have any interest in historical stuff, there is a wild computer simulation of the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. In August, 79 CE, the stratovolcano spewed tons of ash that darkened the skies and blanketed the region, in some places 75 feet deep. Rain that followed turned the ash blanket into a concrete tomb. The city suffocated. In the ruins, 18 centuries later, excavators found cavities in the concrete the shape of the long-decomposed bodies of the people who were buried in the cataclysm. The entire event took barely a day.

In the computer simulation, the first ominous scene is just a bit of wispy smoke in the distance. Hours later, there are guards on a rooftop as the city starts to shake. In a few more hours, one guard falls from his post; the other remains, guarding the city as it grows increasingly dark and ashen. Eventually, the city is crumbling, and the second guard finally falls from his post, vigilant to the end.

Of course, the guards were part of a reenactment, but I wondered anyway: what made them stay? Denial of the increasing heaviness of the air? False hope or false certainly that the worst would never actually happen? Lack of a frame of reference for anything like that to which they would shortly succumb?

In the 1920s and 30s, a self-aggrandizing opportunist played on the fears and frustrations of Germans. Of his rise to power and orchestration of genocide, some will say later that they never saw it coming. Not until it was too late.

As we’ve been pondering the water crisis here in Flint, I and others have been regularly making the point that this didn’t start with water. Some say it started with emergency management; we could make a case, though, for tracing it back way before EM laws, perhaps to the mean-spirited welfare “reforms” of the 1990s, to the abandonment of the common good which was a hallmark of the Reagan years; or maybe to Nixon’s Southern strategy; perhaps further back, to a backlash from Brown v Board of Education; or to the Civil War or … Whenever it began its Vesuvius eruption, I wonder if it didn’t gain steam from the denial or false hope or false certainty of the masses, the most of us, that the worst would never happen.

Vesuvius was an actual natural disaster. Water and holocaust, not so much. But I wonder the degree to which false hope or false certainty keep us in denial, make us complicit.

This week, a video is circulating of a campaign rally in Louisville, a rally for Donald Trump. Trump has consistently played on the racism and xenophobic fears of white American voters. He pretends ignorance, but he has called for violence against protesters, against innocent civilians in the terror wars, against people who disagree with him. So, in Louisville this week, among hundreds of white supporters, including some avowed white supremacists, the video shows a black woman, a student, silently protesting. And in the protest, in the video, she is pushed and hit and spit on by white people attending the rally. She is treated violently by followers of this narcissistic demagogue, Trump.

Every indication is that Trump will win the nomination of his party. Even seasoned political leaders, from whom we had expected a barely more modulated political voice, have indicated they will encourage support for him if he is their party’s choice. And when the worst happens, they and the voters who elevated him will pretend they never saw it coming. Trump is not an aberration; he is simply claiming the mantle of a party that has made hatred and fear its political raison d’etre.

Part of Hitler’s strategy for birthing his Aryan nation was to co-opt the church. An organization of “German Christians” was established to infiltrate the mainstream churches. Which they did. There was an understanding that they would ignore Hitler and he would allow them to go about their business unhindered by the state. Once the German Christian mindset and authority was established, only then did Hitler begin to impose his Aryan principles on the churches, expelling and imprisoning those who didn’t conform.

Some resisted. The “Confessing Church” was the movement of Bonhoeffer, Niemoller and others who began to see through Hitler’s dictates, to perceive the evil in his agenda. The Confessing Church was considered an enemy of the state; its members were wiretapped and persecuted, some imprisoned in the camps. Pastor Bonhoeffer was sort of tried, and eventually executed.

Last night, I spoke about water and other stuff at one of our partner churches in East Lansing, Edgewood. There were a couple of teens in the small audience, and one asked what she could do. I said I believe it is important for people to know stuff. Read, I said, and know everything you can. Consider majoring in public policy. But mostly, mostly, don’t be quiet while people are blowing up your Facebook page with lies and propaganda. Knowing stuff helps us respond, helps us call out the lies, helps us not become duped by false claims – whether they are intentional or simply born of ignorance. Know stuff.

I believe people of faith have an obligation to call the hateful rhetoric exactly that. We are followers of Jesus, a man who knew what was at stake, and who put everything he had on the line for the sake of truth.

Trump, water, Hitler, emergency management. You may say I’m overreacting. Being dramatic. Letting my inner “conspiracy theorist” have too much airtime, using the church for political purposes.

Say what you want. But if the worst comes to pass, let’s not pretend we had no frame of reference; when we find ourselves suffocated in a blanket of concrete that began as just a little bit of wispy smoke in the distance, let’s not say we never saw it coming.



i don’t have time to make you feel good.

I don’t have time to make you feel good.

That phrase has been in my head over and over again these past several days.

Let’s be clear: I’m not the one most harmed or most burdened by this state-created water emergency. All of Flint is affected – “traumatized” is the word used by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, and I think that’s right. Some people are burdened by the daily trek to get water; some are burdened by the inordinate time now involved in normal daily tasks; some are burdened by the fear and worry for their kids or what symptoms may appear in their own lives; some are burdened by the additional costs. Many, many people have added to their own daily burden the work of telling neighbors, looking for gaps in the immediate distribution of water and info, trying to organize a community response to the obscenity and unrighteousness that has been inflicted on us.

This is no small thing. Ninety thousand people have something new to worry about.

And people outside Flint want to help. Maybe they are painfully aware of how this is an American failing. (Flint is only the first or most extreme victim of a politics that has been insidiously taking over our country for decades.) Maybe they are people of faith or they’re paying something forward. Whatever the reason, people want to help.

Great. Help. But that phrase runs through my mind: I don’t have time to make you feel good.

If you need your photo taken with a truck of water bottles you delivered, please don’t ask me. If you need some evidence of the nice thing you’ve done, please don’t ask me. If you have some notion that I’m keeping a list somewhere of every thoughtful gesture and you’ll shortly see your name in print, please let that go. And for God’s sake, if you think you “get it” though you live hundreds of miles away in a completely different reality, please don’t come here and judge us. I don’t have time to make you feel good. And there’s every possibility that you’re pissing me off.

I know. It’s not my best side. But in all fairness, it isn’t yours either. Christianity all too often lives out just enough generosity to let itself off a moral hook of some kind, and then goes back to business as usual, without ever considering how to make generosity less necessary. Liberal Christianity is often the worst, assuming it knows best, that it has all the answers, that it can “fix” whatever is wrong. You’re not helping. In fact, you’re as bad as the state legislature that took away our meaningful vote by its emergency manager law. You’re as bad as the Christians over the centuries who colonized so many countries and forced assimilation. We don’t need you trying to take over right now; we don’t need you telling us how to be Flint. We do need you asking questions, offering to join in what we’re doing, listening to folks on the ground here who have been living with this for way longer than you’ve been hearing it on the news. Help, yes. But first, please pay attention.

There is a lot that can come out of this mess. Maybe in a city of 25 percent unemployment, people will get paid to work in recovery-associated work, though based on the meetings I’m sitting in, I’m not hopeful; maybe schools will get nurses once again; maybe Senator Stabenow will somehow fulfill her pledge to get a grocery store back in the city; maybe democracy will be restored and the people of Flint will once again govern ourselves. Maybe we’ll even reconsider a deadly national agenda that allowed this to happen.

Maybe. But that all takes time, so I don’t have time to make you feel good.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha said last night during Rachel Maddow’s town hall here that we can work on turning lemons into lemonade. Perhaps that’s true. But to make lemonade, you need more than lemons.

You need water.

(this appears today also in the newsletter of Woodside Church, Flint MI)

not so much an indictment as a faithful nudge

LAST WEEK, a hundred or so people from Detroit to Flint rallied on the lawn of City Hall in Flint, many of them walking from Detroit to Flint, calling for safe and affordable water. Water. Not chocolate. Or cars. Or a theme park. Or even better policing or pothole-free roads or public transportation or housing. Water. Water. The thing that keeps us alive, even when we aren’t sure what life is about or where food and the rest will come from. Water. In a state surrounded by Great Lakes, people were rallying for access to safe and affordable water. Because people are sick from water and sick from lack of water, and lives are in upheaval and families are threatened and children are removed and houses are lost because of water shut-offs.

Disclosure: my own water, with no telltale smell or taste or discoloration, has been shown in tests to have lead content twice what the EPA calls an “actionable level,” the level where something needs to be done right now. But mine is low, relatively speaking. People all around me here in Flint are testing even higher. Some are testing at “hazardous waste” levels. We are drinking poisoned water. In Flint. With water bills among the highest in the nation (hundreds of dollars each month for a medium-sized family), we are being poisoned. Ever since our city leadership switched us from Detroit-based Lake Huron water to Flint-based river water, and started treating water locally, our water has failed test after test after test. City leaders say it is safe. But they don’t drink it.

In Detroit, the issue is affordability, yet another attempt to balance the budget by digging in poor peoples’ pockets, and “gentrification by water shut off.” City management is shutting off homes in poor communities with delinquent accounts (but not the commercial non-payers, reports of which have included the State of Michigan, the major sports arenas, and a golf course), then banks are foreclosing because the water bills are attached to tax bills as liens on homes. Thousands of families being shut off from water. Families choosing between rent and groceries and water bills that are extreme.

In Highland Park, a Detroit-area city-suburb, water shut-offs are the result of a problematic billing system. Residents are getting bills for thousands of dollars, then having their service cancelled because they cannot pay.

So, the rally began as a “justice walk” from Detroit, picked up steam in Flint, then moved by bus to Lansing, the capital, in an effort to meet with the governor. To present petitions and tell the stories and beg the governor to do something.

Not that we expected he would. It’s worth noting that Flint, Detroit and Highland Park all have in common this: they have recently been living under Emergency Managers, appointed by the governor, and accountable to no one, to replace all the elected leadership of the cities. A law, passed by referendum, then repealed by voters, then re-enacted by the legislature, allows the governor to do this. He has exercised this power in several cities, mostly the black ones. Flint, Highland Park and Detroit are all majority-black cities.

A group of several dozen citizens traveled to Lansing and was turned away.

THIS WEEK, 30,000 or so youth (and adult leaders) from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America descended on Detroit for the ELCA triennial national youth gathering. They’re worshipping at Ford Field, turning downtown into something like Disneyland according to at least one writer, and “proclaiming justice” throughout the city by acts of service. The early reports and facebook posts are showing a lot of trash-collecting. My teenaged nephew is among the gathered, and I am certain that these well-meaning young Christians want deeply to make a difference. They want to change the world. I applaud them.

But I would like to say that almost no one in Detroit is dying from trash in their yards or trash in the street.

The ELCA knows about the water stuff; even reported on Detroit’s water shut-offs last April. This gathering is said to include an “ELCA World Hunger’s Walk for Water… designed to simulate the experience of collecting water miles away from home, while raising questions about access to water here in the United States, too.”

But why simulate? I wonder: instead of a workshop about water, how might Mayor Duggin or Governor Snyder respond if 30,000 people of faith gathered with local activists on the lawn of city hall or the steps of the capitol and simply said “we’re not leaving until you meet with these water advocates and hear them out.”

Or maybe “we’re here to bring you a glass of fresh, cold Flint tap water.”

Or something like that.

I applaud the youth and their hearts hungry for something. But someone needs to teach them the difference between kindness (which Micah said we should love) and justice (which Micah said we should do). The church ought to be providing teaching moments — opportunities for the controversial, political, difficult, faithful work of challenging a system and making a real difference.

Someone has pointed out that this gathering will make a $30-million economic impact on Detroit. Be assured, the people without water will never see a dime.

tony campolo isn’t “out.”

Another black man is shot, water in my city is still a problem, and a horserace required a righteous response, so I’m a little behind. But here is the headline:

Tony Campolo “Comes Out.”

I suppose the best thing to do with this would be ignore it. Campolo chose to be a non-player in this social revolution a long time ago.

But I resent the headline. Because coming out means something way more substantial than being grudgingly ok with gay people in your church, in your world. Tony Campolo hasn’t Come Out. But maybe Tony Campolo has Caught Up. With majority of the rest of the world. He has finally concluded that gay people are not an abomination to God and a detriment to society after all.

This makes me tired.

Though differing in so many ways, I have had a bit of respect for Campolo over the years. He has long been an advocate of social change on a variety of fronts. I sat in workshops with him more than a decade ago, and heard him talk about creating social change by buying stocks and then refusing to give up proxies in board meetings; heard him tell of chastising a former student who became a physician, specializing in cosmetic surgery. (The student, Campolo said, in focusing on breasts, noses and face lifts, had sold out.) His writing is where I first heard critique of the racism of the GI bill.

In the case of the LGBT faithful, however, he has been less quick to see injustice. “It has taken countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to bring me to the place where I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.”

I would like to say “hogwash.” I don’t want to dismiss his prayer log, but I would like to suggest that he waited, not for the spirit of God to lead, but for the spirit of popular opinion to change. Which is too often what the church does.

Years ago, as a member of a self-described progressive Episcopal congregation, I was invited to sit in on a book group. The book was This Far By Grace: A Bishop’s Journey Through Questions About Homosexuality. The inviter celebrated that the church was “ready to be inclusive,” a church, mind you, that had a lot of gay members. I declined. I said to her, and I’ll say it again, the church is still playing catch-up. I am tired of celebrating a willingness to include people; what I wanted then was a church that was willing to lead, to say to the world around that tolerance isn’t enough. Inclusion in church isn’t, wasn’t, enough. Not then, not now.

Campolo said he was patiently trying to help the LGBT community by being a liason, an advocate: “One reason for that ambiguity was that I felt I could do more good for my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters by serving as a bridge person, encouraging the rest of the Church to reach out in love and truly get to know them.”

But he undoes this bridge thing with the next sentence: “The other reason was that, like so many other Christians, I was deeply uncertain about what was right.”

You cannot be an advocate for someone if you aren’t willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. A “bridge” is supposed to be more than the one who delivers hate mail unilaterally. Even if the hate mail is disguised as “love mail,” as in, “we love you, but…”

And, as another writer has pointed out, he still is not speaking of our Bi and Trans brothers and sisters, and many others in the fluidity of human sexuality. This invitation is still limited. So, not full inclusion.

In all fairness, Campolo didn’t write the headline. But in issuing a statement, he seems to suggest that his changed attitude is pivotal. Maybe it is, for some of the minority of Americans who are still lingering on the homophobic edges, though it is hard to imagine most of them will do anything beyond continue to linger. Tony can be wherever he is in his personal beliefs. But he is not “out,” and can’t possibly know what that means for those of us who have lived outside the church or buried deeply in the church’s massive closet – buried there in no small part because of faith leaders who have refused to do the prophetic thing. Let his faith struggle be his alone, and let’s not celebrate publicly that he finally gets it. What he seems finally to have gotten, frankly, is that the storm is nearly passed and it’s safe to seek the daylight.

So this is not “exciting,” as one poster claimed. I’m not willing to stipulate that Tony’s joining the parade has made it more powerful. But I will welcome him. That’s what we do.

on one detroit man who walked to work

James Robertson is a lucky man. He caught the attention of a Detroit reporter, who told his story of long commute, low wages, high cost of vehicle ownership and poor public transportation. His story then caught the attention of a 19-year-old college student with a penchant for social media (and a couple of others who haven’t been quite as featured in follow-up stories). The story went viral in a feel-good fund-raising kind of way, and as of today James Robertson’s cause has raised more than $250,000 from kind people across the country.
But you can tell I’m about to not like this story.

You’re right, and for a lot of reasons.

First, the story seems to suggest that Mr. Robertson’s challenge is unusual. It is not. Millions of people across the country work for low wages, cannot afford cars/maintenance/insurance and live where public transportation is the first thing to get cut when some fiscal conservative decides to tackle public debt, or some political candidate wants to run on a platform of “fiscal responsibility.” Mr. Robertson is certainly to be admired for his persistence in caring about attendance and getting to his job every day, but he isn’t the only one. In Flint, 20 percent of households don’t have a car; and public buses that don’t run nights or holidays just aren’t really that helpful. (Additionally, the cost of insuring a car in this city is doubled if you rent instead of own your home.) Americans put insurmountable barriers in front of those we charitably call “the working poor,” and then condescendingly express our collective glee when they overcome them.

Second, we love being “good Samaritans,” but generally find it distasteful to be good citizens. In America, according to the White House website, Americans contribute about $178 per taxpayer per year (based on a $50,000 income) to all the forms of social support we call “welfare.” Though the amount is comparatively small (“national defense” spending is $440), we continue to complain about those who need this assistance and we tend to vote for those who promise to get tough on “those people.” The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, (SNAP), also called “food stamps,” in particular takes a regular public beating, though, even combined with school nutrition and WIC, it consumes just $69 of that $178 welfare allowance. About 19 cents a day. If we were good neighbors, we would rebel against the stigma and insist that we double or triple that amount, so kids can be fed and workers can be healthy and families can have what they need. Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society, said someone famous. Why are we so opposed to that?

Third, the 19-year-old student who set up the funding told the newspaper that he thought a board should be set up to help Mr. Robertson manage the money – at the time barely $50K. Because a 19-year-old college student knows better than a grown man? Because Robertson is poor and can’t be trusted to manage a more than one paycheck at a time? Because the student is white and Robertson is black?

There’s more. The student has become the hero, subject of lots of comments about what a credit he is and how well his parents did in raising him. Car dealers and others have called with offers of cars or services, perhaps hoping to share the “hero” limelight. (Note to dealers: someone right outside your dealership has a similar need and could use one of those cars, but you may not get your name in the news for helping.) Reporters and commenters have called Robertson “deserving,” as if he somehow stands above the millions of other low-wage workers who show up every day, despite whatever else in their lives is held together by prayer and duct tape. Robertson’s boss has praised him, calling him the standard by which he judges the attendance of the rest of the crew. (Praise would sound more sincere if it came with an offer of a ride, FYI.) Robertson commented that he loves his job, that his co-workers are his family. Who treats family that way?

Finally, a reporter commented that Robertson seems to like his routine. Really? Being away from home 20 hours a day, sleeping two hours a night, and trying to catch up on the weekends? Really?

This is why I rail about systemic change. James Robertson put a face on a problem, but we prefer to respond to the face rather than the problem. Weekend backpacks of food for kids; 4 free gallons of water each to resident with proof of residency; Wells Fargo claiming righteousness-by-association because someone with a Wells Fargo debit card bought groceries for a shelter; “angel tree” Christmas packages for families; anything we can do with the minister’s discretionary fund, a desire to meet — and be photographed with — the people we help. It all pales in comparison to the biblical mandate that we create a world that works for all the people, that, in addition to loving kindness, we do justice and walk humbly with God.

At $10.55 an hour in a one-person household, Mr. Robertson actually lives at nearly twice the federal poverty line. He is officially not poor. And he is not alone. Fully 35 percent of Americans live below “twice poverty.”

So, while I’m glad Mr. Robertson is getting relief from his distress, I’d like to know that 112 million other Americans will be likewise relieved.