The above tweet came across my Facebook feed (just think about that statement for a second and the intersections of a social media-drive world...but alas, that's barely related to the point of this post) on my birthday. Break out the cake and pointy hats!
The linked piece is by Dr. Russel Moore, President of the Ethics and Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Church. As is often the case, it appears Dr. Moore meant well. Indeed, his introduction to the piece sounds not just true, but convicting to white Christians willing to listen: "A church that doesn't reject racism, nativism will cut itself off from revival." Of course, that itself is the problem. White Christians have been listening to white Christians forever. If we truly want to move toward an integrated understanding of faith, we can't keep listening to only or primarily white, straight, old(er) men. This probably sounds odd, coming from this white, straight, young(ish) white man, who hopes one day to be an old man.
However, it's also desperately and obviously true that we need people of color as leaders in the conversations about diversity in the church. So, rather than explain what's problematic with Moore's post, I implore you to read Dr. Christena Cleveland's excellent tweet storm that responded to and critiqued Moore's article. Dr. Cleveland is a theologian at Duke Divinity School and her evaluation of Dr. Moore's article is on point, beginning with the article's optimistic but ill-suited title, "A White Church No More," which is only the tip of the problematic iceberg with Moore's article.
Instead, let me take this time to implore you this simple truth: who we listen to is a matter of faith. We can't imagine a God who truly loves black people, or truly embraces gay people, or truly calls women to ministry, if we aren't willing to follow the leads of African American theologians, LGBTQ+ pastors, or women presidents. If you aren't reading these authors, listening to these lectures, appreciating these artists, then a chasm will always remain between your conception of God and your experience of your neighbor. The image of God given to all people will be inconceivable to you in people unlike yourself.
Fortunately, some people have already done the work of compiling lists of people to read. Consider engaging these resources, and more specifically, the people behind them, as a spiritual practice.
For instance, Elle Dowd, a white ELCA seminarian and leader within the #decolonizeLutheranism movement, has put together a list of texts by women of color that introduces themes important for white people, and especially white men, to understand. You'll find that list at the bottom of this post, and her writing is especially helpful in helping to understand the experiences of women, bisexual persons, and advocates in #BlackLivesMatter. Traci Blackmon, a significant theologian in her own right, recently listed a number of Black women theologians, which deserves your attention. Dr. Willie Jennings, currently of Yale and formerly of Duke, wrote The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, which along with his class were the watershed experience that helped me comprehend theological anthropology, or what it means to be human creatures created by God in God's image. Lenny Duncan, a Black ELCA seminarian, compellingly writes about his experience as a formerly incarcerated in our prison industrial complex, formerly homeless in Philadelphia, and formerly unchurched. Thanks to the internet, the only obstacle remaining between these leaders and a straight white audience is that audience's decision making. Who will you decide to listen to? Who's voices will you pursue?
I'm not saying you should stop listening to me or white voices altogether. I am saying that we've privileged straight, white, older, wealthy voices too much, so you should devote your attention to people of color, to women, to the LGBQ+ community, to people outside of the wealthy Western castes. Consider their intelligence, their perspective, their lament, their frustration, their hope, all that they share, not only because they deserve it (they do), and not only because they'll change you for the better (they will), but because God calls us to a church diverse far beyond our wildest dreams. We can only experience that kind of church when we listen to diverse leaders and allow their convictions to shape our own.
Who we listen to is a matter of faith, and as long as we choose to listen to mostly white, straight, men, we handcuff ourselves to a dying form of church. Make no mistake, that form of church needs to die. But if we bind ourselves to diverse leaders, who more fully share God's image through the prism of their perspective, then we'll find we're bound again to a church experiencing Christ's resurrection. We'll find that we see God in places and people that we never expected. We'll see God's gifts manifest throughout all people. Of course, that's already happening. It's up to us whether we want to see that, to experience that, to know those people and know the God who so profoundly gifted them.
Elle Dowd's Reading List
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat
The Autobiography of My Mother by Jimaica Kincaid
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston
God of the Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin
Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
“Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” by Warsan Shire
“Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur
“salt.” by Nayyirah Waheed
Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Color of Water by James McBride
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Assata by Assata Shakur
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
Pray the Devil Back to Hell
When I was a child (read: into my early 20's), I believed pastors were supposed to carry the burdens of a congregation without revealing the personal or professional burdens that wearied them. In my estimation, since the congregation was supposed to rely on the pastor, the only one a pastor should rely on was God. Of course, at that point I didn't realize how high of a pedestal I placed the pastor, simultaneously above the congregation and as the congregation's sole conduit to God. Fortunately, a strong dose of realism and not a little bit of therapy debunked that myth in my life.
That's one reason why I shared my diagnoses of depression and anxiety with my congregation during the interview process. Though I've not needed medication for about five years, mental illness still irregularly inserts itself into my life at home and at work. What's important for you to know, as a reader, is that you've got people in your life who exist with this burden. People who you love but who may not feel comfortable enough to share just yet. Maybe even yourself, if you've lived with these kind of plaguing feelings, emotionally and physically, without a precise answer.
For me, it starts with a day that just doesn't feel right. Not sleepy but not fully awake. Not mad or sad but neither feeling fully alive. Almost always, this is accompanied by a headache that radiates with full persistency from my temples. The first twenty four hours or so I imagine it's just poor sleep, but two or three days into the luminal space between life and mere existence, I realize that something more is likely going on. So I begin to ask some questions. Is the weather constantly overcast or rainy? Has my diet been too high in carbs lately? Did something throw my routine out of whack? Have new factors entered the equations of my life.
People sometimes imagine that, if there's environmental factors related to symptoms, then it's not related to mental illness. I imagine that comes from a misunderstanding of how or bodies and minds are related, but in short, we're psychosomatic creatures. What happens to our bodies affects our minds. The reverse is equally true. I've found that the best remedies to my anxiety and depression begin with a daily routine that includes lots of vegetables, an hourlong workout, some exercise, and achievable goals.
So, when Michelle went out of town for much of the week, I took the chance to eat foods she normally doesn't like (I prefer Papa John's pizza, while she prefers Pizza Hut). At the same time, I had work commitments through the weekend that took me far of my routine. It rained intermittently for five days straight, with no windows of consistent sun longer than thirty minutes. While I slept fairly well, and even worked out more, with the rest of my physical factors at play, I found myself settling into a funk. It didn't help that I knew I had to leave for a conference only twelve hours after Michelle's return home.
That's the thing with mental disorders. Not all are major incidents all the time. Rather than feeling like a car wreck all the time, my experience lately is much more like driving a car that's not handling right, but getting a standard tuneup doesn't solve the problem. It's something deeper than topping off the fluids, and much more difficulty to access, something like the timing belt on the engine. It's essential to run well, but hard to diagnose without taking apart key components.
It's been important for me to return to a daily routine that begins with meditation and includes much better diatary choices. While my schedule will remain atypical the rest of this week, the forecast of daily sun and typically Texas warmth (near one hundred degrees) in Austin also bodes well for me. Our minds are even more difficult to inspect than an engine, so there's no guarantee the fog will lift from
the forefront of my mind. But that's not the important thing today.
The key is for you to know that, if people don't seem themselves - or if you don't feel like yourself - there may be something below the surface, outside of your control, that created that change. If it's someone else, react with grace, because compassion and encouragement are essential for someone whose processing through a flareup of mental illness. If it's you, don't leave it unchecked. The best decision I made was to pursue counseling and psychiatry, because through conversations and medication I learned how to affect my conditions. Though they remain out of my control, just like the environment, I can make choices conducive to health. So can you, and a counselor, spiritual director, or psychiatrist are all healthy and helpful options.
This is true for everyone, but it's essential for pastors. Being authentic about your needs is the only way those needs can be met. It's your story to share, and who you inform is your choice, but notinforming anyone endangers your health and God's minsitry through you and the church. After all, God showed up most powerfully in shared suffering on the cross with others who suffered a similar fate, and through that, brought healing and resurrection to the world. There's no shame in living with pain. When you're ready, and when you share, you'll find that you're not alone. Jesus is there in your midst, suffering alongside you, and in all likelihood, there's another person (or a whole community of people) who now what it's like to be in a funk. We're all better off pursuing healing, chasing new life, together.
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13
It's been a whirlwind of a weekend. In the Virginia Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, we celebrated the ministry of our retiring Bishop Mauney and began our meetings on Friday with around seventy nominees to become our next bishop. By Sunday morning, we elected Bob Humphrey, pastor of Muhlenberg Lutheran in Harrisonburg, VA. As soon as Bob's first speech as our Bishop-elect was over, I skidded down the road to Fuqauy Varina United Methodist Church that afternoon. After spending the evening with some classmates from our time at Duke Divinity School, Bobby and Amanda Rackley, along with their six month old son Josiah. I took off early Monday morning to drive to Landsdowne, VA. There I spent the afternoon with my three year old niece Charlie, four year old nephew Ben, and sister-in-law Michelle while they were visiting Michelle's family outside of D.C. It was wonderful to see God's work in our church, in friends, and in family.
In the midst of those chaotic times when our pace and direction changes frequently, it's difficult to remember that God's also active in the silence of our lives. Spending time in work, worship, and celebration with nearly 1,000 people throughout the weekend at the synod event is exciting, but God's no more present there than in the fifteen hours I spent in the car driving from Virginia's Appalachia to the North Carolina Piedmont to the edges of our nations capital and back home again to another part of Appalachia. God's no more present in a full worship service celebrating the vocations of students who soon head to college, work, or service than in the down time at a friend's house with a cold drink paloma (tequila, lime juice, and grapefruit soda like Squirt or Fresca) and meaningful conversation about what God's up to in our lives. God's present both in the gleeful shots of nieces and nephews when you first arrive and in the silent cuddles as they watch Paw Patrol.
I tend to look for God in the flashy experiences, but the problem with that is I can miss the presence of God in the normalcy of my life. While I was driving up I-95 and down I-81, I listened to various parts of my iPhone's music catalog, which includes a handful of albums from Mayday Parade. One song in particular caught my attention in ways that it hadn't before, despite nearly a decade of listening. It's called, "The Silence." You can listen below, but here's the gist of the story: a woman's disappointed about a broken relationship and cries out for the return of her lover. Yet, the tag to the chorus is, "and the silence will set her free."
Now, this is an incredibly loose association to the story above from 1 Kings, but for the first time, I heard the song as one of liberation and life rather than solely lament. The silence wasn't the absence of what she needed. Rather, she found her freedom despite looking for deliverance in another form, namely a response from the now absent paramour. It wasn't in a flashy, fictional, RomCom reunion, but in the profound realization that her value, integrity, identity was still presence even in the silence, even absent what she'd come to identify as the important presence in her life.
I'm much the same way. Silence is often the most liberating part of my life, whether through meditation and prayer or rest and awareness of my surroundings. Though I look for God's presence in the flashy portions of life, I'm even more exhausted by the barrage exposure to the demands of work, the desired pastoral appearances at various functions, and the simple realities of life like swimming against the current of humanity at the grocery store. In those moments, silence becomes the active presence of God, who offers a word of comfort that, even if the job isn't perfect, God desires to be with us. Even if we can't meet every expectation placed onto us by others, God still favors us. Even when we're overwhelmed by sensory stimuli and the sheer mass of people, God remains patiently supporting us, not shouting at us or cutting us off in the international foods aisle but whispering, wooing, that we might realize our sufficiency not in the flashy, fiery, resounding realms of life, but in those moments of sheer silence, when the only one we know is the only one we need.
One of my favorite shows as a child was Ren and Stimpy. I'm not suggesting it's the most wholesome show, but at times, it offered some clever social commentary. One of my favorite moments is from the commercial for Log. Check out the commercial for this toy that all the kids will love.
Ridiculous, right? Not as much as you might think. While we were with some of our youth and young adults on a hike and swim event at Claytor Lake State Park, the "toy" that drew the most attention wasn't the football, frisbee, beachball, or bocce ball set that we brought. It was the log-sized driftwood that floated into the swim area. The lifeguards must have admonished a half dozen kids for playing on the log. Apparently we're so worried about liability that kids can't play with driftwood! Before the log was dragged onto the beach, their imaginations didn't just see a dead plant, but a personal flotation device, a pirate ship, a tugboat, a donkey to ride (apparently donkeys can swim while hauling people), and who knows what else. Imagination turns logs not just into toys, but all sorts of creations that bring us joy.
Imagination is an indispensable part of our life together as the church. This weekend, June 9-11 of 2017, the Virginia Synod of the ELCA will call a new bishop to lead God's work through our Virginia congregations and ministries. We use an ecclesiastical ballot, which means that we believe the Holy Spirit is actively at work in the process and that any pastor in the ELCA is eligible on the first ballot. There's thousands of possibilities of who could become the next shepherd among us, but when I think about what kind of leadership we need in the church, I think about logs.
I pray for a bishop who sees more than just driftwood, whose imagination allows her to embrace the endless possibilities of what that log might be.
I pray for a bishop who won't holler for people to stop playing with that log, whose aversion to risk will smother any innovation. We need a bishop who takes calculated risks, understanding that the rewards aren't just in some far off potential payoff, but in the thrill of the risk itself.
I pray for a bishop who will gather a staff around her that will complement her strengths and fill in for her weaknesses.
I pray for a realistic bishop, who knows well the obstacles we face. We need a visionary bishop, whose insight sees the way to Christ's abundant life within and beyond today's dilemmas.
I pray for a bishop who loves Jesus, loves the church, and loves the world that we're called to serve.
In this increasingly divided culture, I pray for a bishop committed to diversity and inclusion of people who aren't like us. A bishop who celebrates the gifts that others bring. A bishop who won't let the patriarchy and privilege caught up within our bureaucracy prevent us from lifting up the wonderful gifts brought by women, people of color, people in the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, people in poverty, people of all sorts who aren't as welcome as they ought to be in our churches.
I pray for a bishop whose leadership decenters leadership and recenters the Priesthood of All Believers, and that doesn't put an asterisk on the all.
I pray for a bishop who looks at these challenges not as some useless piece of driftwood as an obstacle to ministry, but as an opportunity to find joy in seeing new life where there seemed no possibility for life. I pray for a bishop who grasps the joyful ability of a young person to see something more than a log and helps others see that too.
The Holy Spirit that will guide our process of calling a new bishop is the same Holy Spirit that moved to create all creation out of formless chaos. The Holy Spirit never sees only dead vegetation floating without purpose. The Holy Spirit sees hope beyond hopelessness for new life for that log. I pray for a bishop filled with that spirit, with God's Spirit, for it is that very Holy Spirit that is at work making all things new.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.