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If you’re not outraged …

WingfieldSeveral years ago, a bumper sticker popped up here and there that said, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” We need to print up some more of those for times like these.

Love him or hate him, you’ve got to admit Donald Trump turned up the outrage quotient to hyperdrive during the 2016 presidential campaign. He both tapped the outrage of angry white males and underemployed Rust Belt workers while at the same time eliciting outrage among those who opposed him and his proposed policies. And now we find ourselves living out one of the most anxiety-filled changes of presidential administrations in American history. Each day brings new surprises.

For many Christians, there’s so much to be outraged about that it’s hard to narrow the list: Fears for women, fears for immigrants, threats against religious liberty, threats against dissenters, fear about this, fear about that. All while a large swath of the evangelical Christian population acts as though God’s will is finally being done to address their years of outrage.

Feeling overwhelmed by all these emotions and fears, I was reminded of a classic scene from the movie City Slickers with Billy Crystal, who plays the city slicker named Mitch, and Jack Palance, who plays the crusty old trail hand named Curly. Sitting around the campfire, Curly asks Mitch: “Do you know what the secret of life is?” And then he holds up one finger, explaining that there’s only one thing that’s the secret to life. Which causes the city slicker to inquire, “But what is the one thing?” And in classic form, Curly smiles and declares, “That’s what you have to find out.”

What is the one thing people of Christian faith might focus on right now — even unite around — that would serve as a benchmark or centering pole to address the outrage all around us?

Here’s an idea from the world of strategic planning: Begin with the end in mind. This is such a common mantra of strategic planners that it is almost cliché. But it’s still true. To figure out how to get where you’re going — whether in a business or a church or in life — you’ve first got to know the desired destination. Once you know that one thing, it’s easier to work backward and chart a path to success.

What is the desired destination for people of Christian faith? What is it we should be striving for? Here’s a clue: Jesus began his public ministry by quoting Isaiah 61: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”

Sitting around the campfire, Curly might have said that was Jesus’ “one thing.” Problem is, Christians differ in our interpretation of what those words mean. Was Jesus declaring release and liberty only to the faithful who believe or to everyone? Is this about me or about someone else? Is this about separating the faithful from the unfaithful or about acting in faith toward the faithful and unfaithful alike? Is this about judgment or grace?

Here’s a second clue: Remember that Jesus reserved his greatest outrage for those who sought to protect their own self-interests above enacting the coming kingdom of God. He said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and the second commandment is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Maybe that’s the “one thing” that could — or should — unite Christians in this season of outrage, as we struggle to know which battles are worth fighting. As we seek discernment about what policies or appointments or legislation to speak for or against, we will demonstrate that we love the Lord our God with heart, soul and mind when we demonstrate that we love our neighbors as ourselves.

To do anything less should be an outrage.




Maybe preachers count after all

Dean_Russ_croppedWe stepped up to the desk and the attendant gave instructions about the pre-op procedure, the location of the waiting room, restroom, vending machines and what to expect over the next few hours. She informed the wife and son of our church member heart patient that after he was dressed and ready for surgery, “two family members at a time will be allowed in to see him.” Then, she looked at me, and said, “Clergy don’t count. You can go, too.”

I thought I understood what she meant by “don’t count,” but I appreciated the clarification!

I’ll have to admit that in the changing culture, I’ve sometimes felt that I did not count, that what I do doesn’t matter all that much. I don’t invent or produce any widgets, whose market value propels the all-important economy. I don’t buy and sell commodities, whose imaginary value boosts the Dow until a sale morphs that virtual share into actual cash dollars. I don’t entertain or shock or run fast or throw a ball or represent one of those personalities whose visibility on the ubiquitous tube captivates so much of our collective attention.

I don’t count. I have had that feeling.

(As an aside: I mostly don’t feel this among African-American friends and acquaintances. It’s not that I need to be an authority, to be in authority. It’s not that my fragile feelings get hurt without some padding of my ego by use of a title or some obvious deference. It’s just an observation. I don’t know what it means; I do know there is a noticeable difference in the kind of recognized respect I carry in certain communities.)

But, back in my mostly-white, mostly-affluent, increasingly-secular world, I have had that feeling….

Then came Nov. 8.

Who would know that the most contentious election in memory, the elevation of one of the most unconventional and divisive characters in presidential history to the highest office in the land, would give preachers a boost in confidence and a little more hope for the future of the profession?

The young couple joined our church just over a year ago and were showing all those signs pastors love, like actual enthusiasm for church, actual participation in programs, actual attendance in worship! And they got pregnant (church growth lives!), and they announced a new job would take them an hour away. We grieved the news, have felt their absence, so when they showed up the Sunday after the election, along with his parents, it was such a delightful surprise. “What brings you back to town?” I asked, excitedly. It was his mother, who had come to know our brand of church, our stances for social justice, our preaching, who responded, “We really needed a good word today. We knew we could count on getting one here.”

Wow. Maybe I do count.

Maybe preaching actually counts, too. It’s an odd thing, you know, people in the most technologically connected world there has ever been, people who can get “all the news that’s fit to print,” and a lot that’s not, people who can find every opinion, the words of every living expert, the wisdom of every dead visionary, all right there, at your fingertips — some of those people still need to come sit for an hour, a central portion of which is given to old-fashioned listening.

The sermon lives.

We’ve heard it more than once in the last few weeks, that need for a good word, that hunger for the confidence of faith, the comfort of hope, the convictions of love that good preaching must offer. It’s nice to know the spoken word still matters to some.

It’s a responsibility and a privilege I have never taken lightly — but it was a bit easier when I thought it didn’t count!




Post election thoughts and raising bicultural children: fears, challenges and opportunities

Lozano_WebLa versión en español está disponible aquí.

During the recent presidential election, I observed with dismay the counting of the electoral votes. As I tried to deal with the night’s stress, I resorted to intense cooking (at least for my own standards), as well as observing reactions on social media. Many of my friends on both sides of the border were concerned with the fostering of a hateful environment based on open prejudice, intolerance and bigotry.

As I dealt with my feelings and emotions the best I could, one of my kids was concerned about my reaction, and how I should be much more upset with the election’s outcome and what might transpire in the future. I tried to reassure both of my kids that in the end, somehow, sometime, everything was going to be fine because our human horizon, as broken as it is, exists within a Divine horizon.

I must confess that I was also a little surprised with my own reaction. Later I realized that perhaps my equanimity was based on previous experiences. Of course I was mindful of the importance of this election regarding gender issues, but I have to admit that due to my dual citizenship this was not the first time that I had voted for a woman for president.

I have to admit, too, that for some people, it felt like the end of the world due to fears of a rise in intolerant, inhuman attitudes and behaviors. I have already experienced some of that, too. In the 1980s, I went on a solidarity journey to the countryside of El Salvador in the middle of their civil war. In 2010, my Christian delegation was constantly followed by the police in Egypt’s countryside, and I was told to be very careful while speaking at a Christian women’s leadership conference due to governmental observers that might be hiding in the crowd (speakers from similar Christian events had been taken to prison). Of course, I have also experienced the constant fear produced by the increase of violence in northern Mexico during the last decade.

Among the many post election fears, one especially caught my attention: the one of families raising bicultural kids. This group involves different categories: families where at least one of the parents is an immigrant; families formed by interracial parents; families who have adopted children from a different race or country than their own; families that have lived in the United States for generations but have kept the traditions of their original culture/country, and thus are raising kids with diverse cultural expressions. These families share a common fear related to how an increased racism may negatively affect their kids’ development and potential.

By no means do I consider myself an expert on this topic. However, I can claim some experience as an immigrant mother who has raised two wonderful children who so far, and thanks to God, seem to be doing fine. Here are some things to consider for those who find themselves in these categories, as well as those who support these blended families.

It is very important to create a good sense of awareness in bicultural kids. The sooner they realize that they are different because they have a different experience, the better. This realization includes the acknowledgement that they live in between spaces. Mexican-American theologian Virgilio Elizondo expressed his pain of not being fully accepted as a Mexican or an American, and how eventually he found a gift in knowing and embracing the two cultures, and serving as a bridge between the two parent cultures. Predominant systems may use this duality as a way to disempower someone. However, to counterattack this disempowerment, I have always taught my kids that it is a gift, and actually much fun, to know two cultures, two languages, and two ways of life. Here it is very important, too, to expose bicultural kids as much as possible to the original, foreign culture, so that they may develop a good cultural self-esteem. At a certain point we attended two San Antonio, Texas, churches: One Anglo, progressive church, on Sunday morning in order to gain knowledge of gender issues, and one Hispanic on Sunday evening, in order to learn about cultural issues. If it is safe and feasible, take these kids to their country of origin to experience directly the culture and way of life.

The Bible is a great resource for raising empowered bicultural kids. Genesis 1:26-27 highlights how all human beings are created in God’s image. Even though predominant systems may overtly or covertly suggest that some people are the “other” who may be perceived as inferior or deficient, God does not see us in that way. Humans’ dignity and worth are based on the fact that God created us in God’s image, all equal, but at the same time diverse. Furthermore, the Bible highlights that we were carefully made by God (Psalm 139:13-18). The Bible narrates, too, the divine mission of people who lived in between cultures, such as Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Ruth, Esther and Paul.

Racism and its evils are not pleasant topics; nonetheless they must be discussed as soon as possible. Racist dynamics are an attempt to have power over the “other” that is different in order to weaken and control him/her. They may be present in different ways. My daughter has experienced some racism from Latinos/as in this country due to her fair skin and blue eyes. Unfortunately, often she is told that she does not belong among the Latino/a population due to her complexion, even though she was born in Mexico, has dual citizenship, and is fluent in Spanish. Learning to recognize, name and confront these racist dynamics is truly empowering for bicultural kids.

It is also important to provide bicultural kids with safe spaces where they can express their fears, anguish and struggles. By doing this, they can verbalize their feelings/emotions and will be able to process and manage them better.

I believe that parents are the major generators of self-esteem in a child. The same applies to authority figures, such as pastors, youth leaders and teachers. Let us use every opportunity to bless these kids with words of affirmation, empowerment and inclusion. At the end, the goal is to make them feel comfortable with whom they are, and help them to develop a good self-esteem.

I am writing this column 20 days after the presidential election, and unfortunately there has been an increase in racist incidents in the U.S. Thus I feel that this topic is more relevant than ever. At the same time, I am mindful, too, that I am writing at the beginning of the Advent season during the week of hope. As we acknowledge the evils of racism and other “isms,” we, as Christians, must continue hoping that love, justice and peace will eventually prevail. I keep repeating to myself, as I told my kids during the election night, that the human horizon with all of its chaos exists within the Divine horizon. As Christians, we are called to move the human horizon as close as we can to align it with the Divine horizon. It is a challenging task, but with God’s help, we must do whatever is in our hands to make this a reality in our circles of influence and beyond.




The moment the Church has been working for

Butler_Amy_ColumnObjectively speaking, there has been very little in the political world that one might call good about the months leading up to the election. Now that the election is over (sort of), for Christian leaders everywhere there is at least one very, very good thing. Here it is: Donald Trump is no longer a candidate for president.

The whole election I have heard Christian leaders invoke the separation of church and state as their reasoning for staying silent at critical junctures or not addressing important issues raised by Trump’s candidacy.

But don’t forget that the election is over now, and the separation of church and state does not limit the ability of religious institutions or leaders to critique the state or the people who occupy positions of leadership in government.

This is where many of my colleagues will say that they are called to be pastors, not politicians. We came to this line of work in order to care for people — and politics is too divisive, especially in congregations with mixed partisan leanings. But there are too many important issues affecting the lives and well-being of so many Americans, including our congregants, to not speak.

We ministers are on the front lines, triaging the trickle down impacts of our national policies. This means, yes, we must make the hospital visit when a congregant is beaten up on the side of the road. But are we really doing our jobs if at some point we don’t also stand up and call for safer roads to keep our people from being assaulted in the first place?

For too long we’ve allowed polite dissension and fear of offending to dilute the religious voice, almost to the point that is has no significance in any national conversation. And if you’re wondering why the institutional church is in decline, maybe it has something to do with the fact that what people are hearing in the pulpit has nothing to do with what’s going on in the rest of their lives. The time for complacency is over.

And it’s over particularly because of the vitriol and hatred and fear we’re being fed in news coming out of our now-elected new president’s camp. It’s time to take off our “Make America Great Again” hats and put on our crosses, because it’s the Christian voice that is going to have to rise to the fore in this conversation.

The election is over, and we’re no longer Republicans or Democrats; we’re Christians. We may disagree about how to handle issues, but we share Christian values. And as Christians we cannot allow some of what we’re hearing proposed to become normalized.

What, you ask?

Inequitable amassing of resources, for one. Were Jesus here he would surely take issue with American excess. He stretched a little kid’s lunch to feed 5,000 people after all, and I don’t recall him ever expressing concern over limited resources and whether or not he would have enough for himself. Jesus would speak up — and as a matter of fact, he did — over laws and policies that line the pockets of the rich and cripple the poor. We can’t say we’re his followers unless we do that, too.

Disregard of neighbor. I don’t recall one incidence of Jesus excluding, demeaning, or marginalizing anyone, especially anyone different from him. By contrast, he spoke of and lived an ethic of welcoming the stranger and including the outcast, even when he was criticized himself. As Christians we fundamentally believe that welcoming and caring for our neighbors is part of following Jesus, so we will not participate, either by our endorsement or our silence, in any efforts that hurt our neighbors or put them at risk.

Misogyny. Jesus never talked about women as objects, sexual or otherwise. By contrast, he welcomed women into his inner circle, he listened to them, he healed them, he gave them positions of respect and leadership — all within a society that did not value them for anything other than property. As Christians we must not stand by while women are sexualized or language demeaning, violating, or dismissing of women is used by our leaders or reflected in our laws.

The time for talking (or being silent) about politics has come to an end. It’s time now to decide whether we’re serious about leading communities of Christ-followers or falling in line with political ideologies that violate everything we hold sacred.

The day after the election I was sitting in my colleague Michael’s office, wondering aloud what the results of the election meant for our work as the church. He said something I will never forget. He said: “You know, we’ve been working together here for two years, giving everything we have to help this church get healthy. All this time we thought we were working so hard to insure the health of the institution — both this one and the Church with a big “C.” But maybe that’s not what we’ve been working for after all. Maybe this election has created a moment in which we will have to decide whether we really believe what we say we believe as Christians. Maybe this is the moment we’ve been working for our whole lives.”

Maybe, indeed.




A post-election invitation to action

Elizabeth Mangham LottTwo weeks ago, Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon broke from their characters as presidential candidates on Saturday Night Live and spoke directly to their audience saying, “We cannot tell you how to cast your vote, but we can ask you: What kind of country do you want to live in?” That question has stuck with me for days as I realized too much of my hope sits in the powers and principalities of this world. And so, in these days after the election, I have posed my own questions: What kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of church do you want to help create? What kind of life do you want to live?

I don’t want to dwell on the one who is going to be the next president and the one who is not. Those conversations are happening enough already, and I’m sure you are as fatigued by them right now as I am. In fact, I’m barely reading anyone’s ramblings about the next president or hand-wringings about who most of us thought would be president because it all reminds me of the new 95 Theses I’m privately working on. Instead of festering and obsessing, in these days when the news is still fresh and even raw, I want for us to harness the energy of this present transition and poignancy of this cultural moment to ask better questions about our world, our nation, our church, our neighbors, and our lives. Let’s use this time for good.

We need to ask better questions of what comes next because this is our work as the church. Participating in the creation of a world as it should be is the partnership work to which we are called. And maybe the questions we ask about what we are doing in our churches will challenge our understanding of what church is in some uncomfortable ways.

Something old is dying while something new is being birthed, and we are feeling the realities of that process. How will we respond? How will we participate in God’s holy imagination? How will we use our lives to stand witness to the values of the kingdom of God over any kingdom of this earth? How will we stand together as allies and advocates and prophets of justice?

Friends, consider the passions, projects, causes and relationships that are helping draw you more fully into the kind of person you were created to be. Now, how might you more fully embrace these life-giving ways as your contribution to the kind of church you are called to shape, the kind of nation in which you want to live, and the kind of world that reflects what you know to be true of God’s best dreams for every one of us? Ask these questions and then act on the answers.

Last week I extended an invitation to clergy peers via social media, and I want to expand the platform of that same invitation today. Clergy friends, let’s get together with this stack of questions I am throwing out and turn them into better ones. And then let’s turn our best questions into some action steps. What comes next? I want to meet with you around a real table with real eye contact and real conversation. And I happen to live in a tremendously fantastic town for gathering. What if we put together a gathering event here in New Orleans for early January? Maybe Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 12-14, 2017? Who would be interested in getting together soon to talk, plot, reflect, share? I am ready to welcome you as we prepare for a new day together.




Failing to recognize the Jesus of the haters

bergstrom_travis_croppedI’m a social liberal. Want to know why?

Jesus.

Not the Jesus as interpreted by Paul.

The Jesus of the Gospels.

I grew up in a Baptist church in rural Texas and we went to church at least twice a week. There I heard the story of a man who lived his life helping others and trying to teach those around him to do the same. He wasn’t about entitlement or elitism. He wasn’t about nationalism, though that was a popular theme at the time. He wasn’t about exclusion or retribution. He was about love and grace and forgiveness, and about crossing borders and boundaries to express and embody these to others.

There was an underlying theme to his life that captured me enough to make me want to be a minister, though I failed at that because I couldn’t get past my own selfishness. What gripped me was the message that everyone matters, and that caring for each other, including those whom society rejects, abuses or punishes, is the fabric that holds families, neighborhoods, communities, states, nations and the world together. The Jesus I encountered in the Gospels taught that though this isn’t always the popular way to live or the way that makes you economically prosperous, it is the way that binds us all together. He lived and died with this message as his daily expression.

His living wasn’t haughty or mean or derisive. He might have felt fear, but he fought through it and continued to spread his message by the way he lived his life and by the words that came out of is mouth and from his heart.

Yes, I know, he got angry and drove the money changers from the temple, but that was an incident borne out of his outrage of how the underprivileged had been abused by the entitled and greedy merchants, not for the sake of getting what he wanted.

By expressing and following his example, even in my feeble way, I saw the effect these words and actions had on those around me. Oh, not a profound, change immediately kind of effect, but one that was evident nonetheless. In today’s world of instant gratification, this kind of seed-planting-watering-nurturing-tending kind of relating has fallen away, replaced by something else for which I have no name.

But the Jesus of the Gospels, the one so many profess as their savior, their leader, their inspiration, lived a life of planting seeds. He and his followers fed, comforted, clothed, sheltered and befriended those in need. I know many of you might say this is a simplistic view of Jesus, but it is the one I carried away from my early life. It is the view I rarely glimpse any more from those who profess to be his believers, followers of this man who claimed a kinship with Jehovah God.

I, myself, no longer feel I can claim to be his follower because I fall so short of what he taught. But the hypocrisy of my life doesn’t drive me away from loving others, and it doesn’t bring me to despair or anger. Instead, it humbles me, reminding me of what I see, what I feel to be true about what kind of behavior truly makes the world a better place for us all to live. I still see the life of Jesus as the example of what works to make the world a better place for us all. I don’t know if he was God, or the Savior, but I do know that his example of how to live and love has an effect on those it touches.

So, I find myself wondering how the message of this man, how the life he lived, can be interpreted to be supportive of mean, derisive, selfish, greedy, nationalistic, exclusive actions and policies. Maybe I’m naïve, maybe I don’t understand the Jesus that others profess. Maybe he would be different if he lived today, but I think not. Maybe you know a different Jesus than the one I was exposed to. If you do, please explain him to me, I want to understand how he would live if he were alive today and how he could support the behavior I see exhibited by so many who profess him as Lord and Savior.




The need for compassionate correctness

Bill LeonardIn the aftermath of the presidential election, the “N” word (a vicious reference to African-American human beings) is making a public comeback. In a Nov. 14 essay, the online journal, Fusion, documented multiple N-word postings, many related to schools, including Spring Lake High School in Spring Lake, Minn.; the University of Pennsylvania; on the car of a University of Tennessee football player; and at Reed College in Oregon.

There’s more. Election week, in Kernersville, N.C., 15 miles from where we live, Judy and Teena Willard, a lesbian couple, received a note in their mailbox that read (without punctuation): “you lesbian bitches you are sick get out of our neighborhood Trump train.” The couple, who’ve been together 29 years and were married four years ago, are parents of a high school student. They’ve occupied their neighborhood for 10 years. “I’ve been a lesbian all my life,” Judy Willard told the Winston-Salem Journal, “and I get tired of being afraid.”  The Willards are members of Wake Forest Baptist Church that gathers each Sunday in Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University, founded by Baptists in 1834.

In Waco, Texas, a sophomore woman named Natasha Nkhama, on her way to class, was pushed off the sidewalk by a male student who told her, “no n—–s allowed on the sidewalk.” Challenged by yet another student, the perpetrator responded: “I’m just trying to make American great again.” The Washington Post reports that “nearly 300 people” showed up the next day to walk Ms. Nkhama to class. Baylor University was founded by Baptists in 1845.

There’s more. In several incidents, Trump supporters have been attacked and beaten, while multiple postings of “Rape Melania” signs have appeared on social media and at anti-Trump protests. In West Virginia, the director of the Clay County Development Corp. wrote to her mayor that she was pleased to have another First Lady since “I am tired of seeing a [sic] Ape in heels.” The mayor, also female, wrote back, “You made my day ….”  When confronted the woman noted: “Those who know me know I’m not of [sic] any way racist.” Both women have resigned their positions.

There’s more. As these accounts proliferate, the FBI reports that during the last year hate crimes have intensified dramatically, particularly against Muslim Americans, transgender people, African Americans, and Jews.  Blacks are victims of the most racial attacks, while Jews are the most frequent objects of religion-related incidents. As 2016 ends, hate is breaking out all over in the land of the free and the home of the scared.

In this election year, the phrase “political correctness” has taken a considerable beating in the public square and social media. Even Google’s lead definition reflects the controversy, noting that political correctness involves “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult those who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” Online and in various political contexts, “PC” is often ridiculed as a sign of a) snobbishness b) speech control c) dishonesty d) class warfare e) weakness f) excessive verbal policing g) silliness h) all of the above.

In an essay in the Huffington Post, Steve Nelson of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, writes: “Every example of so-called ‘political correctness’ is a case where a small, usually disenfranchised, minority seeks temporary refuge from the dominance of the majority. They seek refuge in the dignity of the names they’d like to be called.” Nelson suggests that instead of debating the term, “why don’t we pursue ‘political correction’ and ameliorate the social conditions that drive women, people of color and gay folks to seek ‘safe spaces?’”

Amid increasing hate crimes and speech, what if the rejection of “political correctness” actually masks a deeper void, a way of evading human compassion, particularly for those who are different from ourselves or whose lives don’t fit our definition of “normative?” Words that ridicule, dehumanize, caricature, or debase persons because of race, class, gender, sexuality, or special needs, “other” the perpetrator and the victim alike. They have no place in our shared humanity.

These days, we are truly a nation divisible, with inequities aplenty. But whatever our ideological and political differences, we must unite in a shared protest against hate, whether in the culture or our own hearts. Whatever our doctrinal/ethical disputes, as religious, specifically Christian, people, we must not be silent when the voices of hatred and violence, lurking just below the surface of our allegedly open, pluralistic society, are unleashed. We must recommit ourselves to compassionate correctness, speaking and working against hate-filled diatribes and actions, particularly in our own communities. If we fail to do so, we will share responsibility when the language of hatred generates new carnage or when the lynching begins again.

With Advent upon us, perhaps all Christian communions can venture across the lines that separate us and find ways, in Word and Sacrament, to reassert compassion, repudiate hatred, and reclaim the gospel mandate that “when you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.” Jesus said that; and he meant it. We do, too.




Love, resistance, and the trouble ahead

Greg JarrellShe looked like hell when I answered the door. The sun was not yet fully up and a lady was knocking already. This day was not to be one for the normal rules of politeness. All the rules had been thrown out the night before, and she appeared as the embodiment of how so many felt in the immediate aftermath of the election. Confused. Disheveled. And tired. So tired. So damn tired.

She wanted something warm to eat, and fast. There was no time for pleasantries. She was not interested in small talk or even exchanging names. She was cold and tired of waiting for what I might think was a reasonable hour. Her words were rushed and her voice pierced the crisp air with a tone that said, couldn’t I just heat up a sandwich for her real quick because it had been a long night and she had been dozing at a bus stop since midnight and the only thing she had in the whole world was the blanket wrapped around her and why am I not moving toward the kitchen yet.

I fixed her a sandwich, of course, plus some fruit as well, but I’ve been answering the door for long enough to know that a little food won’t do much in the long term. That lady — I assume she was an angel, though I cannot be sure — faces really long odds in terms of securing a hopeful economic future. She knocked on the door as the elephants were wrapping up a sweeping victory full of promises — economic promises they will never fulfill, especially for her. Which is not to say that there is much reason to think that things would be different for her if the donkeys were the ones giving the parade. It’s not that there is no hope, but that whatever triumph she wrestles out will be won in spite of, and not because of, the parties that rule the day.

A second knock came while she was still eating the sandwich. A friend wanted to talk about his dream of carving out a new space for resilience and mutual support. He had just learned of an extraordinary asset that was being made available to him. “What if we build a space where love and interdependence are part of the structure?” he thought. His voice was filled with the energy that woke the sun up and started it rising on a day where you couldn’t have blamed it for staying in bed. Imagine, he was saying, that I take what is rightly mine and use it to build the common good. On a day where there was every reason to fear and to grasp onto anything and everything, especially for a black man like him, he was already dreaming dreams.

Such work of taking our own assets, our own sweat, our own security, and using them to build spaces of common wealth is what it means to be hopeful. Creating the kinds of spaces that can resist the lure of meanness and greed is precisely the work we have to do. This task is daunting, but it is not that much more daunting the day after the election than it was the day before the election. The reds and the blues have been re-sorted, but the system remains the same. Not all Pharaohs are created equal, but Pharaoh is still Pharaoh, and Pharaoh’s economic strategy is still a pyramid scheme.

I am not saying that the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was about choosing “the lesser of two evils.” Engaging in a fantasyland that equates racism, xenophobia, misogyny, bellicosity, and unbridled avarice with email servers will do us no good. I only mean that both tickets, however different, were built on the same crumbling foundations of supremacist ideology and the economics of scarcity. The outcome of the election has not fundamentally changed the work we have to do. As families, neighbors and communities of faith, building imaginative spaces where all of God’s children can flourish has always been our calling, regardless of which Caesar is in power.

What is different now is the context in which we will do the work of living hopeful lives. The vulnerability of those on the margins is only increasing, threatening bodies, minds and spirits. Health care, intelligent immigration policy, freedom of the press, and equal educational opportunity are now in jeopardy for everyone. Naked white supremacy is ascending to some of the highest policy staff positions in the White House. The environment in which this is happening is toxic, both literally and figuratively. Behavior our children would never get away with is becoming normative for adults. Fear in such a time seems quite appropriate. The world is scary.

I remember an old story told about living in a time of fear. There was One who was about to be crushed by a domination system. The old Rome (not ours, the new one) was quaking at the thought of political upheaval. There were protests and parades in the streets. The order of the day was being challenged, and so a backlash was to be expected. Following the backlash, there would be many dreadful days to come. “You will have trouble in the domination system,” the One said. “But be brave. Love has already overcome the domination system.”

The days ahead necessitate bravery, to be sure. Massive resistance is required. There are tables that need to be turned over, beginning with the desk in the Oval Office. There are walls, built and unbuilt, that must come tumbling down. There are more than a few demons yet to be cast out, and not just a few hungry lions to be faced. Our love will have to be fierce. Luckily, there is precedent for such love.

Resistance is rooted in love. It is founded in the deep imagination that we can do better for our children, and for ourselves. The kind of love that animates resistance is the love that can’t wait until the sun comes up to knock on the door and conspire about creating a more beautiful place. That love refuses to be afraid of a neighbor, refuses to be silent about state violence, and will not accept anything less than justice. That love casts out fear, regardless of the insanity of the domination system. Lucky for us, there is ancient precedent for such love.




The election seen from an Arizona slot canyon

Sparks_SusanThis opinion piece was also delivered as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City on Nov. 13, 2016.

Recently, my husband and I were in Arizona and Utah. We love that area of the country — red deserts, fantastical rock formations, and, of course, the canyons. Usually, when we think of a canyon, we think of something like the Grand Canyon where there is a gigantic hole in the earth. But there is another type of canyon that is my favorite, and those are called slot canyons.

What makes a slot canyon different is that the top of it is just a small crack — a slot — sometimes only a few feet wide. But hidden below that modest crack is a vast canyon carved over thousands of years by water and floods carrying sharp, abrasive sand, rocks and debris in its torrents. It forms that way because the rock on the surface is harder than the soft sandstone underneath.

I couldn’t help but think of those canyons when we finally ended what seemed like seven lifetimes of an election cycle. That canyon represented exactly how I felt. The years of sharp, abrasive language, the torrent of accusations, the flood of racist, sexist, xenophobic debris had cracked my otherwise hard surface and begun to erode my core.

I know I’m not alone. This was an election like no other. When is the last time you can remember that the day after an election, the Canadian immigration site crashed?

There was such desperation in the air that the satirist, Andy Borowitz, crafted this headline for the New Yorker: “Queen offers to restore British rule over United States.”

slot-canyon-1The impact of the result was exponentially boosted because it felt personal. It certainly did to me as a woman with the sexist, abusive language thrown about like it was everyday dialogue. It clearly felt like that for people of color, for Muslims, for Mexicans, for all minorities as well. It was like no one cared, that no one heard us, that the hate-filled language we had endured for months — years even — didn’t matter, that we didn’t matter.

It’s a bad sensation to feel you don’t matter, to feel you’re not heard. It can produce a corrosive rage that can carve up your insides … like a slot canyon in the deserts of Arizona.

There’s another thing, though, about those slot canyons that makes them different from all others. And that is the light. Since the opening on the surface is so narrow, there is very little light that gets in. Everything looks dark, dank, and foreboding until … until the sun rises just high enough for a beam to pierce through the opening and the entire place lights up. You can finally see the canyon for what it truly is. Good and bad.

First you see the bad part: scorpions lurking in the shadows, a few lizards, and slithery snake trails in the sand. But you quickly move past those to the good. When the light breaks through, you see the wondrous diversity of colors and layers and strata, beauty that photographers and artists flock to see from all over the globe, things you don’t appreciate until the light breaks through the crack.

This election has cracked us as a people and as a nation. And like that slot canyon, cracks allow in the light. We see things we didn’t necessarily see before. Good and bad.

We see the scorpions, the slithery snakes, the haters, the underbelly of America that we have hoped and prayed never really existed. But the crack lets in the light and shows us they are there.

But there’s something else we see in that light. For through the cracks and brokenness, we also see straight through our core. We are reminded who we truly are as a nation and as a people.

For example, we are Americans. We may not be proud of it at the moment, but we’re still Americans. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin wrote a letter consoling his daughter about the election this week: “America didn’t stop being America last night and we didn’t stop being Americans and here’s the thing about Americans: Our darkest days have always — always — been followed by our finest hours.”

I was reminded of that fact watching the New York City Veterans Day parade. Here we were, just a couple of days after a vicious election cycle that literally tore our country apart, and yet up and down Fifth Avenue were waves of soldiers — fellow Americans — people from every race, gender, ethnicity, language, and religion marching in solidarity, commitment and sacrifice for this nation.

slot-canyon-2America didn’t stop being America this week because of the politicians and the pundits. These messages of separation and hate are not what this country was built on. It was built on the ideals of freedom and opportunity; it was built on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That never left. And when we look through the cracks and brokenness, we are reminded that it is still at our core.

We are also reminded that at our core we are Christians, which means we fight for justice and equality, shining the light of hope and truth into every crack in the rock of bigotry and hatred we can find. It also means we follow the greatest commandment of all: love thy neighbor.

Of course, Jesus didn’t qualify that commandment along party lines. Everyone (Democrat, Republican, Independent, etc.) is our neighbor. Tragically, an aftermath from this election was a sense that we as Americans aren’t neighbors anymore. Many have said, “We don’t even know our fellow Americans.” Polarized by the media and the politicians into a mentality of us versus them, trampled by the racist, sexist and bigoted language, it is easy to believe that all those who do not see the election as we do are haters.

Yes, there are racists and misogynists and scorpions in this country. They exist and they are vocal and many are powerful. They were part of this vote. Too much of it, in fact. But in my deepest heart, I don’t believe hate is what drives the majority of Americans. I can’t — for to believe that is to give up all hope.

Frank Bruni, columnist for the New York Times, explained it this way: “Donald Trump’s victory … does not mean that a majority of Americans are irredeemable bigots (though too many indeed are). Plenty of Trump voters chose him, reluctantly, to be an agent of disruption, which they craved keenly enough to overlook the rest of him.”

We may abhor that willingness to overlook, we may not agree with the vote, but when the light breaks through the cracks, we start to see that we aren’t the only ones who feel rage. We start to see, perhaps, that many cast their votes out of a familiar place: the personal pain and anger from feeling unheard and unimportant — not hatred of the other. And in order to rebuild, we have to start with what we have in common. As the book of Ephesians tells us, “Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4:25).

When we look through the cracks and brokenness to our core, we are reminded that we are Americans, that we are Christians, and that we are also Baptist. We are a people whose forbears came together in response to intolerance. Manifestations of that ideal include supporting separation of church and state, advocating for worship free from discrimination, and lifting up respectful dialog as a healthy means to understanding.

One of the most important ideals of the Baptist is soul freedom: the idea that humankind was created by God to be free, to make decisions on their own — even if the decisions turn out to be wrong. This means we can disagree as individuals, but we stay together as family and as a people.

We stay together.

Brothers and sisters, we have two choices going forward: we can allow the corrosive anger to take us down, or we can use it to rebuild a new world. The book of Ephesians also tells us “to be angry, but do not sin” (4:26). Instead of giving up, I say we gear up and use our anger for good.

We have come through a battle, and we are cracked to our core. But while painful, a crack is also how the light gets in.

Let the light remind us of who we are.

Let the light remind us of what we have to do.

And let the light remind us of our most treasured gift: the wondrous diversity of colors and layers and strata of this great nation, beauty we can too easily forget when the sun goes down.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
— Anthem, Leonard Cohen (9/21/34–11/7/16)