Consider this statistic: This week I will move for the third time in three years, and the fourth move in the last five years.
Consider this fact: I'm not getting any better at it.
Now, there are a few facets that seem to go more smoothly. We know how to best back and wrap certain things. We know how to route a way to our destination that avoids the worst traffic patterns. We even know how to better let go of stuff that we don't need.
What is not getting any better is how I feel when I leave. I'm constantly torn between the incredible excitement and profound sadness.
I'm excited because I love the possible. The future place, the people we will live with and serve, a new home and new ministry, this all inspires within me joy.
I'm sad because I know the goodness of this place, the love of these people, the blessings of the home we've built here and the value of the ministries to which God called us. There is grief involved with leaving the good we know.
Moving forces us into these situations where mourning and delight come crashing together.
Perhaps what I need is to find a place where this collision creates something more, something like gratitude.
Gratitude gives thanks for what is and what is to come. Gratitude looks back to previous situations of mourning and finds the joy borne out of those centrifugal experiences. Gratitude fosters perspective as it knows that the good of the past need not taint the move toward the future, and the good of the future need not taint the memory of the past.
My prayer for all of us who are on journeys, whether across state lines or on the paths of our own lives, might find gratitude between the mourning and the anticipation, that we give thanks for where we have been and where we are going. Such a thing doesn't simply come from an attitude adjustment, but from the perspective of a God who journeyed to earth from heaven, then to a cross and even to hell, all in order to give goodness to the pilgrimages we walk. So my prayer is that God gives us gratitude, that Christ fosters that perspective within us through the Holy Spirit, who connects the past and the future in this ever-present moment of gratitude.
Democrat = Liberal. Republican = Conservative. All too often, we assume these equations to be true.
Perhaps one of the most influential pieces on white privilege in my life comes from Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. In it, McIntosh explores white privilege from her insider's perspective and lists how, as a white person, she assumed fair treatment within society in a number of ways that African Americans cannot assume. While she often updated this list, one area that she never pointed out, at least to my knowledge, was the assumption from white people that law enforcement was an equitable and just process.
Am I really saying that white privilege exists within law enforcement?
Yes, and here's why.
For instance, while people of color are no more likely to use drugs, African Americans are disproportionately arrested and prosecuted for these crimes.
Consider that, when convicted of the same crime, a black person is twenty percent more likely to be given a mandatory minimum sentence, twenty percent more likely to enter prison, and receive sentences ten percent longer than their white counterparts.
Perhaps most related to this week as we still reel in the wake of Michael Brown's killing, black and latino persons are three times as likely to be searched than a white person when stopped by police. African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and four times as likely to experience use of force by police than whites.
I bring this all up because white people, including myself, must remember our privilege in this society at all times, and especially as we enter conversations about how to pursue justice in light of the killing of an unarmed black man. We cannot pretend that society is fair or that the system treated Michael Brown like it would have treated me if I or any white person had behaved in precisely the same way. According to the statistics, I am three times less likely to be searched, 1/2 as likely to be arrested, and 1/4 as likely to experience force, simply because I am white.
This is unjust. Now, of course I am not wishing more violence on anyone. I am, however, saying that we must not pretend white privilege doesn't exist. Our experiences are not the same, and race plays a significant part in shaping how we are seen in society.
From a Christian perspective, this is nothing short of sin, and all sorts of unjust. White Christians must find ways to speak to the dignity of our Brothers and Sisters of color that help to affect change in how our law enforcement system addresses all people.
As this conversation continues, if you are white, do not pretend that Michael Brown's killing is simply the result of a scuffle with a police officer. First, there is no evidence (as of this writing) that suggests such an encounter occurred, and more witnesses confess that Michael in no way reached for the officer's weapon. But even more fundamentally, Michael Brown was more likely to face accusations, arrest, and violence that day than any white person, simply because he was black. Whatever assumptions you bring to the table, remember that the does not treat each person with an equal measure.
If justice is to roll down like water, if righteousness is to come like an ever-flowing stream, then we must first recognize the injustice in the world, and how that unrighteousness might benefit us. We must repent. We must, above all, help God's kingdom to come and will be done here, on earth, as it is in heaven.
To do that, we must remember that one conviction and one pardon was offered to all, regardless of race, in the person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we are all judged the same: innocent.
And don't let the pictures you see fool you. Especially this one. He wasn't white either.
I've cried a lot lately. Like many, I'm trying to make sense of the evils so evident in the world. The kidnapping of girls in Nigeria, simply because they sought an education as young women. The persecutions and genocides of minorities in Iraq. The killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen, at the hands of police in Ferguson, MO. The suicide of Robin Williams, the deeply talented and troubled actor who inspired so many of us.
These tears are, in part, born out of confusion. I am near my own ordination, so thankful for the goodness in my life, and so anxious because those blessings are kept from others. This dissonance of my blessing to the desperation faced by so many others is incomprehensible, and sometimes, I falter under the accusation of it all.
The tears also come because of the reactions, or lack thereof, to these tragic events. Many of us, myself included, sit idly by in the face of the abduction of young women, the massacring of minority groups, and the death of unarmed civilians at the end of a weapon held by one charged to protect citizens. There are undeniable racial components to this. There are undeniable cultural components to this. There are undeniable proximity components to this. If people do not look like us, live like us, or live near us, apparently we are less likely to care about what happens to them. And that is a tragedy I cannot abide, one laced with the sin that led to the aforementioned atrocities.
The same can be said for Rush Limbaugh's use of Robin Williams' death to sensationalize his own political purposes. Such bastardizing of a person's tragedy is sin and nothing less.
The moment I heard of Robin Williams death, I could not reliving scenes from What Dreams May Come, a movie where Robin Williams plays a character that leaves heaven to rescue his wife from hell, where she suffers in loneliness after her own suicide.
Now, I'm well aware that Robin Williams is not his characters, nor is he simply the moral of his movies. But this ominous coincidence, that Robin plays a person that harrows hell to rescue someone out of their own depression, is a coincidence that will not leave me alone.
Let me be clear. I do not mean to indicate that suicide leads to hell. Far from it. All death is redeemable in the life of Jesus. Yet, even so, I cry, because perhaps the most troubling reality for me is that, as a person prone to depression, these things leave me feeling entirely helpless. I often know not where to turn, other than lament.
And that is where I find strength.
The biblical lamentations offer a myriad of ways to tell God that, quite simply, we are not satisfied with the present evils. To paraphrase one of my professors, this language of Scripture enables us to hold God accountable for the promises God first made to us.
But in the midst of it, there is still pain and confusion, tears and sorrow.
I cry for those taken from their homes because of their gender and desire to learn. I cry for those persecuted simply because they are different. I cry for Michael Brown. I cry for Robin Williams. I cry because I do not know what else to do but lament and hold God accountable for the better future promised to the world in Eden, in Israel, and ultimately in Jesus.
I cry because, what dreams may come, I must believe that Jesus will harrow hell to bring us all into heaven. What dreams may come, we will not end up lonely, but together with those girls, together with the persecuted, together with Michael and Robin and all people in the Kingdom of God. It is hard to believe that in the midst of my lament, but the very ability to lament in this way is born out of the belief that God will not allow depression, or racism, or sexism, or extremism to have the last word. The last word is charism, is gift, the gift of Jesus who laments alongside us and works toward a kingdom where there will be no more tears.
But until then, in the face of these and other atrocities, I will cry my lament, hoping against hope that God will hear the tears fall.
What if I told you that God speaks through everything?
No, I'm not promoting pantheism (God is everything, or is the sum of everything, that exists)or even panentheism (God is contained within everything that exists). What I'm saying is that God, who is the Creator of all things, communicates to us through that creation.
This resonates with people who find a particular sunset landscape especially divine, or find holy inspiration through a piece of art. Through creation, our creator shares that creative identity with us.
Of course, this also means that God speaks through grimy oil coated seascapes and through the eyes of the homeless, hungry, and hurting within our city. Why don't we talk about that?
Probably because we don't like to listen to what God has to say in those communiques. We'd much rather soak up the blessing of garden at peace than the judgment within a creation broken through human avarice and consumption. We'd much rather experience the beauty of God's voice through song rather than the harshness of God's cries within the mouths of those in need.
We need to listen to God wherever we are, not just wherever we want to hear what God is saying. God is speaking words we need to hear across this world, and the more we block out the messages we don't want, the more we ignore the Word we need.
This week, listen for God in the best of times and the worst of times, in the springs of hope and in the winters of despair. Listen. God is calling through it all.
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
This passage from Jeremiah often appears in devotional material and Sunday sermons that make a sort of equation out of Jeremiah's content. It goes something like this: Your Trials + God's Faithfulness = hope and a future.
I've never been terribly enthralled by these approaches, primarily because they overlook the incredible time of pain Jeremiah faces along with the rest of the Israelites who witnessed the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. You see, this - the destruction of a nation, of a worship center, of God's place amongst God's people - frames the Book of Jeremiah. This is no trite trial, but the real possibility that God was gone, and so was their livelihoods, their lifestyles, and their identities. After a war, sitting in the ruins of a burned and toppled temple, Jeremiah prophesies to the Israelite exiles in Babylon that God has a plan for their prosperity, one that should inspire hope and ensure a future.
This is no simple equation, but a complex exercise in trust.
Seminary is, more and more, a complex exercise in trust as well. I attended Duke Divinity School for three years because I believe God wanted to prepare me for doctoral work one day through studying one of the most academically rigorous theological M.Div. programs in the country. I then spent two more on internship and earning an STM at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary because I believe God called me to serve in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. One of my friends recently wrote a blog post lamenting the nature of funding in theological education in the ELCA, and particularly within her synod (see here). She is not alone. Even those of us with the best scholarships often come out of school with debt for living expenses, and that is definitely an exercise in trust.
Further, to spend three years (or four, or five like me) in graduate school in the incredibly isolated field of Christian theology leaves you with a fairly small set of job opportunities related to your degree, and that is definitely an exercise in trust.
Most of us move many miles away, leaving family and home far behind, and that is definitely an exercise in trust.
But in the midst of all that, God offers this assurance through Jeremiah, plans for prosperity, for hope and a future.
This should make us rethink what those words mean.
Prosperity, perhaps, has little to do with our acquisitions of assets, but rather quality of life. Perhaps prosperity is entirely unrelated to money
Hope, perhaps, has little to do with our comfort zones or familiarity. Perhaps hope is not about what we have and know, but about what God has in store for us.
And a future, in this light, likely looks nothing like we imagined it to be when left to our own devices. Consider that Israel never imagined to find God in Babylon. Yet Babylon is where God preserved Daniel's life in the lions' den. Babylon is where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walked in the fiery furnace with God, unburned by the hate of Nebuchadnezzar. Babylon is where the Persian King Cyrus, whom scripture refers to as a messiah (Isaiah 45), restores the Israelites to their land and funds the reconstruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem. Who could have imagined the future?
Not even Jeremiah. Yet from within the dust of destruction he prophesied that God, though hard to see in the present circumstance, had something better in store. A sort of prosperity that may look more like deliverance from lions than capital gains, a sort of hope born out of flames, a future born from entirely unexpected places, and so much better than we might ever imagine.
And so, I am thankful to have faced my own lions held back only by the hand of God, walked through a number of fires with the company of Christ, and sought a future with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the Lord brought me to serve Christ Lutheran Church in Radford starting September 1st. This is not the place I had imagined, but a prosperity so much more prescient than I've ever known. This is not the call I had envisioned, but a hope much more alive than I've ever known. This is not a future I ever saw, but one I am so blessed to live into alongside these good people of God.
Together, we return from exile, and look to rebuild in the place where God calls us to minister. I am so thankful for this, and for them. Thanks be to God for the exercise in trust that has been the last five years, that took thousands of dollars, at least four moves, two degrees, countless jobs, and two great communities like Duke Divinity School and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.
Whatever the struggles we've faced, the prosperity, the hope, the future are worth it. I almost wish I knew that so long ago.
But then again, it wouldn't take trust.
"Who is your daddy, and what does he do?"
You might remember this oft quoted statement from Arnold's Kindergarten Cop (which shockingly missed out on the Academy Award nominations). Long story short, Detective Arnold goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher in order to catch a drug dealer, whose son is in the class.
Growing up, my friends and I loved to quote this tidbit in our best-worst Schwarzenegger voices, placing him in a myriad of situations. My favorite? Just imagine Arnold strolling up to Jesus and asking, "Who is your daddy and what does he do?"
Now, forgive me the male dominated language here, but what if this is actually the most important question we have to ask and to answer? Who is the one who gave us life?
In the Lutheran tradition, we weekly pray the Lord's Prayer. It begins with "Our Father," and then goes on to explain the myriad of things that we ought to pray for, precisely because they are the ways God has promised to care for creation.
God is our parent, the one who gives us life, and we know God through God's actions. What does God do? God brings the kingdom to earth and accomplishes a divine will that makes this world like the heavenly realm. God gives us daily bread, forgives our sins, and empowers us to forgive with the same incomprehensible grace. God keeps us from temptations and delivers us from evil.
Now, despite all the hilarity around Arnold's question, Jesus answers precisely: This is my God the one who bore humanity in the womb of the earth, who reigns with compassion and justice, who feeds the hungry and forgives the sinful all in order to bring heaven's righteousness to humanity.
This question is so important because it is a reminder of identity, first of God's identity, and then our own. We know who God is by God's revelations, God's actions made visible to us. This question is vital not because we need a perfect answer, but because we must constantly be searching for who God is and where God is active in the world, and then mimicking those actions. As those created with the image of God, just as we are born with the likeness of our parents, we must live in a way that reflects that identity.
So the next time you watch Kindergarten Cop, or more importantly, pray the Lord's Prayer, remember that God is our father and mother, the parent that brings us life. Remember that, through the innumerable ways that God meets us in the world and the ways that God still works to redeem creation, we come to know who God is, and who God calls us to be.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.