Monday, July 6, 2020

There Is Another Me

Somewhere there is another me
Only he is not white
Perhaps he is Black
or Latino
or maybe one of the Chin people
that I met in Hakha last year.
His life mirrors mine in so many ways
yet the differences
make all the difference
His 67 years hang on him like a weighted coat
pulling his shoulders and rounding his back
His knees hurt, the arthritis getting more painful by the day
He loves his dog
but the pain of playing and walking
or getting up and down on the floor
makes everything an agony, not a joy.
If the other me lives in the US
his Social Security
would pay for his physical therapy...some of it
if he could get off work to go
But the job he has
driving a bus (a job that locks his knees in place
til he can hardly crawl down from the vehicle at shift's end);
or the loading dock (where the added weight of carrying the produce that fills the truck
day after day
leaves him almost in tears
as he climbs the steps to his apartment)
Maybe he lives between Kalay and Madalay
gathering wood
in a country that has no medical care for him
So he shuffles and limps his way through the days
that he is able to walk enough to work
other wise, there is nothing.

Somewhere there is another me
only he is not white.
The abscess in his jaw last January
could have killed him.
He may sleep underground this morning
the cool dirt covering what is left of his bones.
Perhaps he got the care he needed
the antibiotics given by IV
the pain meds
Or maybe someone reached into his mouth
with semi clean tools and pulled the tooth
while infection gushed and choked and made him vomit.

The toothache he has this morning
is a reminder of how quickly
his inability to get care can put him in death's path
or leave all of his physical wellbeing impacted
by the lack of adequate dental care that has plagued his life.
He will put off having something done
Dentists are expensive
or unavailable
So he will wait til things are unbearable
Shortening his life unknowingly

There is another me
only he is not white
And on his way home tonight from work
he will be stopped
the fact that he is Chin in a country run by a Burmese military
or Latino on the Texas border
or Black in Spartanburg County
means that being stopped is a risky business.
He will not be treated with the respect
that my skin and my position (most people still treat clergy respectfully,
even if they don't like us)
give me.
He may not be stopped by one of the good guys
But today he may run into one
who things that beating up "those people"
Those lazy Chin
Those uppity Blacks
Those Latinos who're stealing our jobs
is fun.
He may not make it home tonight.

And when this other me
falls into bed
anguished by being demeaned
his tooth's sharp throbbing
and his knees dull ache
and looks to tomorrow, what does he see

There is another me
except he is not white
And until his life matters
as much as mine
My life is a privilege stolen at the price of his.
Until his life matters,
mine really doesn't either.


Saturday, May 30, 2020

When God Can't Breath

"I can't breath."  We've heard this phrase twice from Black men being killed by police officers.  Two times too many.

Minneapolis is grief stricken and rage gripped by the murder of George Floyd.  The thoughts I want to share are a problem for a number of reasons.  The first is that I am acutely aware that I speak from a place of privilege.  This awareness is one of the reasons I have been reluctant to write much about the situation.  But as a pastor I have a responsibility to speak God's word, a Gospel word into this moment.  I am ill equipped to do so; but I will try.

"Come and see how well despair
Is seasoned by the stif'ling air
See your ghetto in the good old
Sizzling summertime
Suppose the streets were all on fire
The flames like tempers leaping higher
Suppose you'd lived there all your life
D'you think that you would mind?"

My life in the movement toward racial and economic equality in this country is marked by music.
Spanky And Our Gang's "Give A Damn" peaked at number 43 on the Billboard chart in 1968.  I was 15.  52 years ago and somehow it seems like we still haven't learned how to "give a damn about our fellow man."  Some of us have tried.  Some of us have gotten our piece of the action and looked away.  For most of us, I think that it's a combination of both.

But the truth is that the ability do chose is a matter of privilege in and of itself.  No policeman has ever put their knee on my neck.  I have never been arrested because I "fit a description" (read that as being black and color being the primary word in the description).  No privileged white woman has ever threatened to call the police and say "please come quick, a black man has threatened me and I'm in fear for my life."

I can count on one hand the times I've been teargassed or pepper sprayed, and both of them were training situations.

Even my rage at the murder in Minneapolis is a privileged rage.  It's also a guilty rage.  If I, and other white folks had lived our faith and given a damn, perhaps George Floyd might still be alive.   I can say that I understand the anger that sets a fire or engages in violence, but that's bullshit...at least in this case.  I have, perhaps three times in my life, been angry enough that killing someone was a possibility.  I know that kind of anger.  But it is not a part of my daily existence. The 'ground down-ness' that makes that anger a part of daily emotion is not my story.
I know that America has perpetrated the oppression that has laid the groundwork for what is happening right now...just as surely as I know there is a racist in the White House who would like nothing better than to throw the red meat of turning attack dogs on protesters and shooting live rounds into the crowd.

"Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have  been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?"

Neil Young wrote "Ohio" in response to the Kent State shootings on May 7, 1970.  I was 17.  Fifty years ago.

I also know that, in the words of Malcom X "When Patrick Henry said, 'give me liberty or give me death, he was not making a plea for non-violence.'"  This is a nation built on blood and the bed rock belief that if you push me far enough, or ignore my need for justice long enough, don't be surprised when I respond with violence.  You shoulda seen it coming.....except, of course if I should happen to be black; then suddenly the virtues of patience and forgiveness are touted and held up as the model for what it means to be a good Christian and a good citizen.  Let me be clear.  That response is bull shit.

I serve a Christ who said, "If you do it to the least of these, you do it to Me."  He didn't say that that's true only if the 'least' is white, or upper class, or sober, or has a clean criminal record.  He said, "if you do it."  Period.  On Monday, on the concrete of Minneapolis, God could not breath.  This same God said as He lay down the rules for living in the Promise Land in Exodus 22:20-23:

"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill treat any widow or orphan.  If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans."

If you don't think the God of the OT is concerned with Justice, you know nothing of Torah.  And if you think that this concern has somehow gone away in Jesus, you don't know much about Him either.

Remember all those wonderful sermons about the "refiner's fire" and how God uses the hard times to refine our lives in Him.  Remember how the preacher told you that the gold or silver was heated up til the dross rose to the top and could be scrapped away again and again.  And how we heard that the refiner knew their job was complete when they could look into the silver and see their own reflection.
Remember?  Well, hang on.  Cause this pandemic and this moment in history is a refiner's fire.
In them our national life is being heated and the dross is rising to the top...and oh what a dirty, crappy mess it is.  Our denying of equality of medical care.  The death of young Black people (mostly men) on the streets.  The rise of White Supremacy and the election of a Nazi 'fellow traveler' to the White House.  The list goes on as the dross of our national shame rises to the top.
My fear is that we will do this time what we have done so often in the past.  We will simply find the long stirrer and stir the dross back into the liquid silver.  We will not do the hard work of living in the heat of God's judgement or of scrapping off the dross of racism and inequality.  Then the only face we will see in the silver is our own and we will worship that idol and claim it is God.

But it is Pentecost.  And I believe that God may breath yet.  I remember that when the breath of God, the Holy Spirit blew through that upper room, the next thing the disciples knew, they were out on the street.  Preaching the Gospel.
If the Holy Spirit blows through us, it will drop our ass on the street.  We can no longer hide in the upper room of our whiteness and our privilege.  You may get dropped on the street in a protest raising your arms to say, "hands up, don't shoot" or "I can't breath."  You may get dropped into a courtroom defending the rights of minorities.  You may get dropped into a food bank making sure those who are hungry during this pandemic are fed.  I have no idea where the Spirit will drop you; It blows where It wills.  You might even be dropped into a police department to live out that task with fidelity (I know officers who are doing that right now).  Each of these is a preaching of Gospel.

I do not know where the Holy Spirit will drop you,..or me.  What I do know is that none of us gets to sit on our ass.  None of us gets to sing the tepid white liberal blues of "slow down, you move too fast."  And that if we do, God's word will be to us what it was to the church at Laodicea: "I know your works; you are neither hot nor cold.  Would that you were cold or hot! So because you are lukewarm , and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable poor, blind, and naked." (Rev. 3:15-17)
The Word Of The Lord

Saturday, April 18, 2020

If We Keep Our Voices Silent

The family that hired her 
hated her
It wasn't her job 
to tell them what to do
Her job 
was to take care of the old woman
There at the nursing facility 
They used their money 
(and they had plenty) 
to make sure that she had extra care
What more could this silly nurse's aide ask for
But then the Covid patients came
and the facility began
to fill with the sound of coughing 
Workers were given masks 
and their temperature taken 
before they could enter the building. 
The aide feared for her own health
But more so for the old woman.
The numbers grew  
as did the PPD clad personnel. 
She pressured them 
to take her home 
The risk was too high
Did they want the old woman  
to die struggling to breath?
The aide was relentless, 
they almost fired her. 
But she was so committed 
to the old woman 
that they could not bring themselves to do it.
So the set a day 
Bundled the old woman 
into a transportation van
And put her in a hospital bed at home.
Angry, relieved, the emotions they felt
As they walked past the old women's room 
with a sigh.
The aide close to the bedside. 
A friendly co-worker asked her,
after the family had stormed  out 
Throwing their hands in the air
muttering as the went,
Why she risked it
Taking on family and placement agency 
to get her moved
She just shrugged and replied 
"If we keep our voices silent 
who will speak on their behalf."

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Coronavirus And The Judgement Of God

Famine, plagues, natural disasters were nothing new to people in biblical times. God gave instructions as to how to deal with them. The commandments about how to treat "the stranger in your midst" as well as the widow and the orphan are, at least in part, commandments about dealing with those forced from their home country by war and famine and pestilence.  The comments about orphans and widows are again at least in part, about those who have been left voiceless with no one to advocate for them in those particularly desperate times of distress. 

I believe that God's judgment is enacted in the midst of these times based on how these marginalized, voiceless, vulnerable ones are treated. As I read Amos 5, I hear echoes of our own situation. I did my reading from the The Jewish Study Bible where the note on this passage says, 

"Amos uses the funer 'qinah' or dirge (used to lament the death of individuals) metaphorically to show that the nation is dead."(re:vs. 1-2)

and

"Again, the idea of a remnant. The emphasis must be on seeking God, which cannot be accomplished by seaking ot the traditional sites where He is worshipped."(re:vs. 4-6)

Amos doesn't say if this is a war, or a famine, or a plague that he sees coming.  But he says that the remnant needs to seek God in places other than the usual ones.  Why?  Probably because in those places the people have raised up idols in those places and made sacrifices in a way that was offensive to God.

We know that most of the idols of that day were fertility gods.  Gods to help bring crops and wealth and good mating seasons for the cattle.  How like that are we when we worship at the alters of money, sex, and power?  Of nationalism and racism?  This underlying idolatry feels very familiar.

But it is what makes their offerings offensive that struck me the most.  Listen to some of these reasons that God gives through Amos:

"You who turn justice into wormwood and hurl righteousness to the ground." v.7
"They hate the arbiter in the gate, and detest him whose plea is just." v.10
"Because you impose a tax on the poor and exact from him a levy of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them. You have planted delightful vineyards, but shall not drink their wine.  For I have noted how many are your crimes, and how countless your sins-you enemies of the righteous, you takers of bribes, you who subvert in the gate the cause of the needy." v11-12

The offer is then made by God:

"Seek good and not evil, that you may live, and that the Lord, the God of Hosts, may truly be with you, as you think.  Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; Perhaps the Lord, the God of Hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph." v.14-15
"But let justice roll down like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream." v.24

We are being judged in the middle of this pandemic by the presence, or absence, of justice and mercy.  Look at where the money flows.  Pay attention to who (individuals or corporations) is getting rich off of the tragedy of others.  

Watch how the "essential employees" are treated.  How doctors and nurses are forced to go without PPEs.  How first responders struggle with these same shortages.  And then there are the other "essential" ones...the one who mops the floor at NIH; flips the burgers at the fast food drive-in; works in the warehouse of Amazon or any one of the smaller distributors.  Those who still work for minimum wages while their children stay home alone because childcare is impossible to find and if you don't show up for work, you're fired.....and you can't afford to lose your job.

Watch the commercial loan companies that are even now demanding payment on loans secured by sales...using tactics most appropriate to mobsters to frighten business owners and their families.

These are an abomination to the Lord.  In Amos God promises that they will not ever enjoy the houses and vineyards they have built from the blood sucked from the poor.  How will this judgement fall on those people here and now?  I do not know.  But make no mistake, God is not mocked.

Still….there is a remnant.  Making masks. Educating about the virus, about social distance, about washing hands.  Home schooling or holding classes on Zoom.  Calling neighbors.  Sharing from their church's food pantry.

The bigger judgement, however, may come when all of this is over.  When the virus has been beaten back by vaccine and/or cure...and I believe this will happen.  It happen with polio and smallpox and measles.  But when that is done, what will we do?  Will we go back to business as usual?  Or will we look at the way in which this crisis has exposed the idolatry of our nation; the failure to do justice; the absence of mercy?  Will we begin, however difficult it may be, to restructure our society into something that is more just and resembles more closely what our governing documents claim we are supposed to be...something that resembles God's calls for the way the marginalized and the voiceless should be treated.

The failure to do these things will result in it's own punishment.  Civil wars and revolutions have been fought all over the world when the poor finally have enough.  Civilizations crash.  It is interesting to note that Rome wasn't destroyed by the plagues in the 3rd century (though nearly) but the image of the rich dumping their dying alive in the streets to die while they headed for the hills stayed with the common folks.  They watched who it was who came out to care for the dying and to bury the dead.  And suddenly, this little group of Followers of the Way...these Christians exploded with converts.  Not because of their theology but because of their care.  There will be a judgement.

And if we fail...if we cannot learn...if we go on "rocking with the rhythm of the stock market"...then we may wind up as Amos foretold about Israel:

Fallen,not to rise again,
Is Maiden Israel;
Abandoned on her soil
with none to lift her up.
 
We've been warned.


Saturday, March 28, 2020

They're Giving You A Number And Taking Way Your Name

I used to have a name, 
I don't remember it
They call me 67 now.
I lie in bed at night next to my wife
They call her 74 with pre-existing 
Sometimes I wake up 
2 or 3 in the morning
(no, those aren't our children, it's 
the time I wake up.
I know it's confusing 
but try to keep up...
Our children are 29, 35 and 42 they're doing okay
Going a little stir crazy 
they tell me when they facetime)
But anyway
I lie there, unable to sleep
74 reads her kindle 
we don't talk
To talk would mean to speak
About the horror of fading
into nameless numbers 
and the knowledge 
That if 74 goes into the hospital 
she will, as she tells me 
when we do speak of this thimg,
"Never come out again"
Because the others there
23, 12, 17, 36
will get the ventilators
Which will go to those 
most productive and likely 
to return to pushing the economy  uphill.
I lie here
And scream
How long O Lord 
and the worda come back
A long damned time
A long, Goddamned time.
But those are not 
the only words I hear.
On a good night 
I hear
Clear as day
This is what the Lord says
The One who created you
O Jacob
Who formed you
O Israel
Fear not
For I have redeemed you
I have called you BY NAME 
and you are MINE 
[italics aren't mine, they belong t
o the Voice]
When you pass through the waters
I will be with you 
and when you pass through the river
it shall not overcome you.
Then
I remember my name 
and can close my eyes 
and sleep
For a while

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

A Tear In My Denial

I have spent most of my life
in a soft and pleasant denial 
Believing that I was
for the most part 
in charge of my own destiny. 
Sure
I would die one day 
but that day was a long way off
and I could keep it at arms length 
by eating right
not driving drunk
exercising 
and saying my prayers. 
Oh there were times
when painful rips occurred 
in that denial. 
A painful, brutal divorce 
the temporary loss
of the profession I loved
restored, thank God
like the years eaten by locusts.
The death of my parents. 
But always 
A new start.
New love, restored profession
and end to grief, 
though the loss lingers on.
But this virus 
has torn a long gash in my denial, 
jagged and deep.
I may never totally feel safe again.
And that makes me afraid 
and angry.
I realize that in many ways 
this helplessness I feel
is no different than that
of much of  the world's marginalized 
Growing empathy is a good thing. 
But this...
a sense that at any time
like a character in a horror movie 
about posession 
where the demon can 
jump from person to person,
Unseen
This terrifies me.
That this evil thing
might catch a ride on my shoulder 
unknown 
Despite my best care taken
to jump from me to a loved one
upon my return home.
Or might chose
to take my life 
because our testing waits
til the demonic has already 
taken root,
And I might wind up in a hospital 
where scarcity 
makes medical personnel 
Choose between young and old
and I, of course, am old.
My only comfort,
Strange as it sounds, 
is that the Hebrews knew
this same fear
Etched into their lives 
by occupation and plague 
and bitter struggle. 
And so I read
and claim for myself 
The promises made 
to this traumatized people.
Job's cry that 
he has asked questions 
too great for him 
may be true, 
but I will ask them anyway ,
and like him, repent
in dust and sanitizer. 
Then scream into the darkness 
Though He slay me
Yet will I trust Him

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Trinity In A Time Of Coronavirus

I do not believe 
that God "caused" the corona virus to get our attention 
or to punish us for our sins.
What I do believe 
may be more terrible still.
For I believe the virus 
is in part
The result of how we 
have treated creation. 

And I believe that God 
seeing what our sin was causing 
Said to the Son 
and the Holy Ghost
Maybe now 
they will wake up, 
It's Lent you know
Maybe in some 
of that self examination 
they will open their eyes and see
Where their worship 
 of Power
and Money 
of Blood and Soil; 
the two headed monster  
of Racism and War 
perhaps they will see and repent
And I will touch the minds 
of those who seek cure 
touch the heart 
of those who have money  and power
I will see from Heaven 
and will heal the earth.

But if they do not,
If they continue in sin 
Profiting from the torment of others
Refusing to aid the weak 
or lift the helpless
Hoarding goods 
while others go without 
Selling the poor 
for the price of PPE
and the vulnerable  
for the price of a ventilator;
Then their own sin 
will tear their flesh and devour them.
Such carnage will be seen 
as has not visited earth before.

When it is over I will gather to Myself
a remnant with which to start again. 

But this time,
This time I hope they will take 
My help
Listen to the words 
of their Sacred Texts
To My still small voice
To the cries of their modern prophets 
And turn

So God and the Son and the Spirit 
wait to see
What we will do.
Heartbroken, tearful 
wracked with the anguish 
of incarnation 
They wait
They weep
They wait