3087694160_65e7783731_oMark’s 9th chapter, a small but hearty portion of which is the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, speaks directly to fear.  Here’s how it goes.

Jesus and his close friends were walking to school one day. You could tell by the way they walked that Jesus was the leader of this would-be gang.  Thomas hung behind a bit, not sure if he should join.  Judas snuggled in close to Jesus’ shoulder, feasting on every word (and every envious glance from others) that this new-found friend provided. James and John walked a little ahead tripping each other at the feet.  Peter and Andrew both fiddled with a pocket knives and some shaveable wood…they were always doing something.  Doers, those two. And the rest? Well, not much else of note for the rest of them.

And as they were walking, he kept on telling his friends about how anyone who wants to save this failure of a school system needs to break away from the need to be popular, take a risk to propose some new, innovative, even scandalous ways of doing things.  And though it would get negative attention and probably even get them expelled, the new life that would follow would be worth it.

Honestly, his friends were only half-listening.  They’d been hearing this all year from Jesus and they still couldn’t make heads or tails of what he meant, though his presence certainly made life more exciting at school.  But if you could look into the recesses of their hearts, some of them actually did start to understand what he was saying…they were just afraid of what it would mean for them and chose a convenient ignorance on the whole matter.

Besides, soon they’d rule the school the way things were going.  And even teachers and administrators listened to the most popular students.  In fact, as they rounded the block past Peter’s old house they started having hushed conversations about which one of them would be “the enforcer,” Jesus’ right-hand guy.  And also who would be the “gate-keeper,” you know, the one everyone had to get through to get to Jesus.

This was important stuff!

First period began.  Half of the friends headed toward Algebra II where they would ponder invisible integers in an attempt to come up with real-world answers (for some of them this would be their life’s work).  A few others skipped class to smoke in the bathroom, warming themselves with nicotine before heading into the classroom.  And a few other stuck by Jesus in the opening class of the day.

As the shop teacher unrolled a scroll of blue-print paper for the day’s project, Jesus turned to John and asked what they’d been talking about.

The shop teacher began passing out smaller copies of the blue-print, interrupting John’s halting explanation of their hushed conversation over greatness.  As the paper landed on the desk Jesus spied it: two beams of wood joined at the center with long spikes.  It was to be an example of an impressively massive marking post to let everyone know that “something important happened here.”

They’d each be constructing their own.

At the back of the class was a little boy.  Smart.  He was known by Jesus, but John and Peter and the rest didn’t pay a lot of attention to him.  He was different than they were in many ways.  But he was smart, and that day he’d just happened to throw together an imaginative example of a clock built from ordinary parts.  No sun dial, this.  It had a motherboard, wires, and a digital display with a tiger print face.

He was proud of it.

As the class period was drawing to a close, barely anyone had finished their assignment.  Some had abandoned the project altogether; others just figured it was too hard to start and didn’t.

The little boy himself had been working on a different project, though similar in scope.  It was strange to some people, but that was nothing new for the boy.

As the bell rang everyone got up to leave.  The young brown boy with the clock in his bag who had been working on a different project walked up to the teacher, proudly displaying his gadget.

The teacher looked at the boy, and the clock, and just wasn’t sure what to make of it.  Was it dangerous?  Was this boy dangerous?  He did, after all, work on a different project than most everyone else…

The boy was escorted to a different room where the chief principal and the secretarial scribes interrogated him with the school truancy officer.  It became clear that a different official outside of the school would have to be summoned, and in walked the Stateys.

It was deemed that the boy would be too dangerous for the good of the people, and he was cuffed and showed the door, leaving his clock behind.

Meanwhile, Jesus and his friends were standing by their locker, having seen what was going on.  As the boy passed by, Jesus turned to his friends and, in a bold move, pulled the young boy into the middle of them.

“If you want to be the greatest,” he said, “you must be willing to stand with, no…more than that…become this one that the world writes off.”

As he was saying this a Statey pushed Jesus out of the way, causing him to tumble backwards, the contents of his backpack spilling out.  Amidst the pencils, pens, and planner that came tumbling out was that blue print of two crossbeams gathered at the center.  It landed square on the floor as if to mark that something important was about to happen.

And Jesus fell straight back onto it, hands splayed out.

And then the friends got it…though the rest were confused about what they were seeing.

Let all who have ears to hear, hear.

Originally posted on A New Day!:

Greetings Disciples,

I’m not sure how to describe these last two weeks.

On Thursday morning as I was packing for vacation, my eyes were glued to the news, tears welling up in them, as I heard of the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.

Charleston, where my wife and I honeymooned.

South Carolina, sister to my home state.

In a church, where on any given week I spend the balance of my time, both personal and professional.mother-emanual-ame-church-in-charleston

That day Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, put forward a statement.  You can read it in full here. In it Bishop Eaton identifies that both the shooter, a member of an ELCA congregation, and two of the victims, The Reverend Clementa Pickney and The Reverend Daniel Simmons who both attended a Lutheran Seminary, are “our own.”

She’s right, of course.  I’d take it one more step, though.  All…

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Upon the chair the child sits. Upon their head our judgment sits.

Upon the chair the child sits. Upon their head our judgment sits.

It is absolutely a sign of my privilege that I forget that racism is alive.

I get “down time” from the uncomfortable, awkward, demeaning, and violent ways that racism infects conversation and interaction.  I don’t mean it’s not there.  I mean that I get a rest from realizing it.

Which is no rest at all.

At our local church assembly yesterday I came out of a workshop session and was talking with a colleague.  A member of local congregation that he knew came up and started chatting as well.  And then it got weird typical:

Colleague: “How did you like the morning workshop you attended?”

Congregant: “Wasn’t helpful.”

Me: “Yeah, I think we were at the same one.  It wasn’t helpful for me, either.”

Congregant: “Yeah. All I want to know is what you do when your Confirmation students look like this.”

And as he said the words “like this” he pointed to a chair sitting nearby.

A black chair.

Colleague: <red face>

Me: “I don’t get your question.”

Congregant: “You know, like this.”

Me: “What are you saying?”

Because if you’re going to say it, say it.

Congregant: “When they’re black.”

Me and Colleague: “…you teach them.”

And I turned back to my colleague and resumed our conversation…and the man left to go somewhere.  And I knew I was giving him the cold shoulder.  And I knew I was angry.  And I knew I didn’t know what to say.  And I knew I felt bad about not knowing what to say.

And then later on we would go to vote on anti-racism legislation for our church and vow to be against racism in all it’s forms…a sea of blue cards would fly up, easily passing it…

Send the medicine, Lord. We’ve got the sickness already.

And here’s the thing: I don’t think he knew his words were hurtful.  That’s not me making an excuse for him; there’s no excuse.  Equating anyone to the color of an inanimate object is really inexcusable and tacky and all sorts of sad.

But it was another knock on my heart at how deep the system is.  Because I imagine that this man probably thinks he’s open and welcoming to everyone.  I imagine he thinks that he’s an ally.

And I imagine that in some ways he is.  But in subtle ways, he’s not.

Louis CK had a stand-up bit on the season finale of SNL a few weeks back.  It was really awkward, as most of his bits are. But this particular act was really in poor taste, I thought.  Nothing is funny about child molestation.  Social commentary is one thing. He went too far.

And it’s too bad that the parts about child molestation overshadowed the whole routine, because I actually think he hit on a nugget of reality in the monologue that is good to ruminate on, even if uncomfortable.

He talked about how he’s not racist, and how when a black man in a hoodie walks into a convenience store late at night while he’s shopping the aisles, he has to continue to repeat to himself, “I am not racist. I am not racist. I am not racist.”

And that, there, is what I’m talking about.  Because for as much as he’s “not racist,” the subtle triggers that have been given to him by the media, by privilege, and by his own uncomfortability in being absolutely present in situations that test the tribal mentality of his cultural upbringing still persist.

Because Louis CK is racist. And an ally. He’s both.  And pretending he’s not won’t do any good.  And he knows that. Because the minute we forget that the system is alive is the minute it steals from you, like it stole from me in the exchange with the man yesterday.

Because if I had been present in the moment, I would have been more forceful in telling him, point blank, how uncomfortable his words made me feel.  How when he pointed to that chair, all I could see is my own Confirmation students sitting there.  And how their heritage is so important to them. And how I could see them looking down as this man pointed at them as if they are an issue that he had to figure out.

If the man is having trouble teaching students of any race, then the man is the issue, not the student.

I speak out about the overtly racist system all the time.  I forget about the subtle racist systems…and it always steals my voice. Because it exists in me, too. And it is pernicious.  And it operates under the radar for most of us (and in most of us) who consider ourselves allies.

Oh the subtle ways we’re racist…even in the church…maybe especially in the church…

Wit and the Battle of Demons

Posted: April 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

Timothy Brown:

For some reason this was on my mind today.

Originally posted on Reluctant Xtian:

He was beautiful and tragic.Drinking-the-beer-and-smoking-a-cigarette

At least that’s how I took him to be at the time.  And I’m not romanticizing here…at least I don’t think I am.  And I’m not talking about “beautiful” as in “attractive.”  I’m talking about beautiful in that deeper way you talk about beauty, if you get what I mean.

Maybe I’m not sure what I mean by that, but it’s the only way I can describe it.

We were in Denver at The Great Divide, a nice little brewery that spits out tasty pints.  We were waiting to take a tour, but it turned out that there weren’t enough people for a tour that day.  We had to just settle for the wares of the place, and I stood at the edge of the crowded bar for a long time before the tender, also enjoying a tasty pint, noticed me.

Drink in hand, the…

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You’ve all heard the hubbabaloo by now going on in Indiana where Governor Mike Pence signed-in private I might add-the9740026677_b5c818f328_o Religious Freedom Restoration Act which effectively allows businesses and vendors to not serve people if it violates their…<cough>…religious convictions.

Great.  Because we have so many examples in the Scriptures of Jesus not serving people because of their sexual orientation, occupation, reputation, and (insert favorite reason to dislike people here).

So many examples.

So many, that I’m not sure how to choose from the examples.

Like that woman at the well who had so many husb…oh wait, scratch that.

Like that woman about to get stoned because she was adulter…oh wait, not that one.

Like that man, the short tax collector who was cheating people, his name started with a Z…oh wait, nope.

Well, at least there is that traitor Judas, right?  At least Jesus puts him in his place, right?

Except that right before Judas betrays Jesus, Jesus kneels before him and washes his feet.  Right before he sells Jesus for profit, Jesus lovingly takes his heel, douses him with water, and scrubs the dirt right off his sole.

…see what I did there?

Lexicon it.  Jesus doesn’t refuse service.  Even the Gentile woman in Mark’s gospel gets a piece of Jesus’ love, despite Jesus’ initial protests.

So tell me, Indiana legislators, lobbyists, and general public who might support such drivel, where you get the idea that this somehow restores religious freedom.  Because I don’t think you’ve read your Bibles.

I really don’t.

Because if you read your Bibles, if you read the story of Jesus instead of the soundbites of crazy, profit-hungry, TV preachers, and bigoted, rapture-awaiting, crazy folks who pretend to be pastors/messiahs/prophets, but are nothing more than charlatans or hustlers, you might realize that to Jesus religious freedom actually means that you are not free to do whatever you want.

My patron saint (no, not Jimmy Buffett…he’s my muse), the Blessed Martin Luther says it this way, “A Christian is absolutely free; subject to no one.  A Christian is absolutely bound, servant of all.”

Another way to think about that is to recall Jesus’ call for us to be yoked to God.  That yoke is “light.”  When we bind ourselves to God, our yoked-ness is light.


Because being yoked to God actually takes away your choice.

This was something that Christopher Hitchens actually got right in his books.  He took umbrage with the idea that we must, as Christ followers (and Torah followers), love our enemies.  It was the height of forced-abuse, he thought (for more on this read his God is Not Great).

So I call on all Christians in Indiana to actually do what this bill, in title at least, claims to do: restore your religious freedom.  Restore the yoke of God to yourself, because if you refuse service to someone for any reason that may be part of an “ism,” you’ve sloughed off the yoke.

But woe to you liberals, too (no one gets out of this one unmarked).

I hear your calls to boycott legislators from your businesses.  I hear your cries of anger, and your threats to not serve supporters of this act in your establishments.

To you, again, I encourage a close reading of Scripture.  Because Jesus actually has said something about this.  In Matthew 18 Jesus instructs Christians on how to deal with those who sin.

And I gotta tell you, I think this law is an example of sin in this world.

What do you do?  You talk to them.  I know many have done that already.

And if they don’t listen, you take another with you so there is a witness.

I think we’ve all witnessed this step…

And if they still don’t listen, you bring in the church leaders.  And for us in the ELCA, this has already happened, too.

And if they still won’t listen, you “treat them as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”

And this is the moment when you think you’re given permission to stick it to The Man.

Except, when you look at how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors (see references above), you realize that, unfortunately for our egos and sense of justice, we are servant here, too.  We do not boycott them from our eateries and services.  We do not block them off from our handshakes and welcome.  We may not re-elect some of the legislators, but we in no way get to marginalize them.

See, this following Jesus thing is pretty tough.  This yoke is light in that it takes away my choice.  But it is pretty heavy on my ego and my own sense of retaliation…

Ugh.  This mess in Indiana makes me a reluctant Christian.  And then Jesus’ own advice on what I’m supposed to do makes me reluctant, too, because it’s not what I want to do.

So, what should Christians in Indiana do in response to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?  Speak out; yes.  Be active; sure.

But also eat with those who you consider your enemies.  Bless those who persecute, because in doing so you show them a love that they are unwilling to give and to receive.

Your anger is justified.  But your discrimination is not.  None is.

The Day We Buried Richard

Posted: December 28, 2014 in Church Life
Tags: , ,

thThe day we buried Richard I had a bit of a headache.  Maybe I hadn’t eaten enough that day, or maybe a cross word or two had fallen on my ears and had crossed into my heart leaving me colder than even the 22 degrees outside would have me be.

The day we buried Richard I had just done a baptism.  A beautiful baby boy.  He was asleep when the water touched his head, and didn’t make a sound even as I smudged oil on his brow and lifted him high for everyone to see with claps and cheers and tears.

Had I been at Richard’s last moments a similar thing would have happened: oil, tears, lifting his spirit high.  No clapping, of course, just reverent silence.  But still, transformation.  Something new.

The day we buried Richard I went quickly from morning services and put myself in my office.  Sometimes we can fake it, and sometimes we can’t.  Today I couldn’t fake it.  I didn’t want to be around people too much.  It wasn’t in me.

Richard and I met at the local coffee house, The Grind.  A place of legend in Lincoln Square, and in my own story, as it was the first place I went when I started working at the big cathedral on Wilson and Campbell.  I got to know the baristas and the owner and the regulars.  When my son was born they made a card for us, hand signed by all the baristas and the owner.  I knew every name.

Now as we wait again for another birth, they always ask about it.  I inspect the mugs on the shelf because I know Levi makes them, and he is dating one of the baristas.  Liam was gone, but now is back.  Happy to see him again.  And Claire made the Christmas decorations lining the walls.  This is a place I know like the playgrounds of my youth.

Richard sat next to me at a table one day five years ago.  He was 80 years old that first day he talked to me.  He was not shy, and no topic was off the table. Politics, religion, literature, art, music; all were fair game.  And not in the competitive way people talk nowadays.  Richard longed to know and to teach, and brought out those two qualities in the willing conversation partners.

So many of us only long to learn what we already know.  “Please, tell us the things we already think so that we’ll know we’re correct!”

Not Richard.

When he stopped coming to the coffee shop I became worried.  Tara, the owner, clued me in.  She was visiting him, as were many of us, at the new sterile room he called “home.”  He had some of his books, and though Parkinsons had taken some of his stability, he still held his mind.

The day we buried Richard I saw some tears.  He had no family to speak of, save for those of us he brought under his maven wings from The Grind.  Bradley, the lawyer from Minnesota.  Tara, the shop owner and lovingly unwitting community builder (did she know that this would be her world when she started to serve coffee?).  Rose, the sweet woman who lived above him who loved fiction and fairies.  Michael, his roommate of 30 years.  Nathan, one of the first baristas at The Grind who remembers Richard from the “old days” of 2004.  John, whom none of us knew but who had performed in a play with Richard, in Gaelic mind you, back in ’78.  Liam, who served him coffee with good cheer.

Richard had a knack for languages that would make most professional translators reach for their tools of the trade.  He was that good, recently embarking on learning Arabic in these last years.  German, French, Gaelic, Greek, Latin; his mouth was a globe.

The day we buried Richard we had no body.  We had no ashes; they weren’t yet prepared.  We had some pictures and we had some tulips and we had some coffee and eats.  We buried him much in the same fashion as we lived with him: over conversation, beauty, reflection, some good back-and-forth, coffee, sweets, and fresh flowers which are almost always found at the front bar of The Grind.

Churches would kill for community like this.  And some churches kill this type of community.

And as we all left one another there were hugs and plans to get back together and “let us know when the baby comes!” and a deep sense that we had done something right by someone we all collectively loved and knew from sitting around little wooden tables and little wooden chairs as coffee from ceramic mugs steamed up into our faces.

“So, Richard, what’s new?”  This is how I’d usually start talking to him after my glasses stopped fogging.  And after everyone left I said it out loud in the little chapel.  To myself, to God, to Richard, and to no one in particular.

And in the moment I thought to myself that the little headache and the cross word that still lingered in my ear needs to go ahead and fade away, because life is not meant to be spent around those sorts of things.  There is coffee and conversation and eats to be had, and prayers to be said.

The day we buried Richard was today.

2 (7)‘Tis the season to carry spare change, right?

At my faith community we raised over $2000 this week for the hunger advocacy center we helped to start a few years ago.  We made over 200 meals for gay/bi/trans/queer teens and served them in Boystown on Thursday.  And we packed up over 40 complete Thanksgiving meals for the food insecure in our neighborhood.

Oh, and we fed ourselves that night, too.  Five turkeys, every side-dish you might imagine, wine, cider, and a partridge in a pear tree (extra delicious).

It was awesome.

But the sad thing is that with exception for the 200 meals (we do that monthly), we only do this once a year.

I mean, we do other things in other seasons, but we only do this particular type of feasting once a year.

And, despite what we might want to think, poverty isn’t seasonal.

Do we donate at this time of year so that people can have a “nice Christmas”?  What about making sure that people have a nice life?


Thank God we can reach into our pockets once a year to donate a little more…how generous of the haves…

(and I’m a have)

Dave Ramsey had this terrible list out about a year ago, and it caused a little stink.  In it he lists the 20 habits of the rich (that, the not-so-subtle inference is, keeps them rich) and pits them against what he calls “the poor.”

It’s at this moment that I encourage you to look up Luke 6:20.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  You know that word “poor” the Gospel writer uses there?  It’s an economic term, not a spiritual term (though Matthew makes it a spiritual term, perhaps to soften the blow).

And how nice of Ramsey to pit the rich against the poor.  No need to draw such lines, Ramsey. Life does it well enough without your help, but thanks for contributing.

It caused such a stink, though, that Ramsey followed it up with an explanation (keep scrolling in the article to see what I’m talking about).  He defends himself by saying that what he posted “is a simple list outlining the habits of the poor versus the habits of the rich.”

The problem is that the list isn’t simple at all (and that there are serious philosophical problems with the whole thing).

It’s not simple because Ramsey imagines that the discussion is just about behavior.  But poverty is not simply about behavior.  I know out of work men and women who work harder than those of us with jobs, and for much less reward.

It’s not about behavior; it’s about systems.

And if there’s one big mistake that I think Ramsey makes it’s that he mistakes privilege for what he presents as “common sense.”

How lovely that you are wealthy enough to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.  How nice that you have the ability to focus on “one goal” in your day.  It probably means that you have access to a supermarket and only one job.

And you read for pleasure?! Bully!

I’m relatively wealthy; no denying that.  I have a bank account, savings, and we have a college plan set up for our children.  I have investments and disposable income.  We have a car, and when it needs fixing we can usually fix it right away. I never wonder how I’m going to eat, and I am (for the most part) not worried about how I’m going to keep the roof over our heads. Our son goes to daycare twice a week, and we fully pay for it. I read for pleasure and for work and spend more a week on coffee than any reasonable human being should (I’m working on it…).

I say all of the above not to make anyone feel bad, but to give myself…and you, reader…a gently disturbing thought: one of the fears that I have is that our participation in the systems of poverty is given a nice little exclamation point by our sense of generosity at “this time of year.”

I’m looking forward to giving a little more this Christmas.  More to my neighbor and more to God.

And then I’m hopeful that in doing so I might one day learn to give more on December 26th, too.  And May 9th.  And July 12th.  And…

Because poverty isn’t seasonal, and I want to remember that a Merry Christmas isn’t the same as a merry life.