Blur and Cross the Thin Blue Line

“We call the police the thin blue line. Let it not be a line that divides us.” – Eric L. Adams, NY police officer and guest columnist

Eric Adams describes his experience as an African American citizen and father as well as a police officer in blue uniform in this guest column; what can only be a painful intersection every day has become searing this week.

It reminds me of a conversation I had thirteen years ago with a fellow seminarian who was a former police officer. She was as intrigued with my background as a Baptist turned pacifist Mennonite as I was with her story, cop turned minister. Our conversation went from curious to passionate when we engaged the question of guns and violence. She spoke about her training to meet what she faced, and only escalate as needed to contain a situation. “What would you do,” she asked, “if you responded to a domestic disturbance, and walked into a house and found a man waving a knife at his wife?”

“Well,” I said, without having completely thought it through, “I wouldn’t want to walk into the house alone. I’d want 25 of my neighbors with me. I’d want us to put overwhelming numbers of people who care about both of them in the room. We’d need to be physically willing to put ourselves in the middle of the fight, and help each of them move away and cool down.” Her eyebrows went up. Mine did, too, as I contemplated being close to the knife, or whatever other weapons might be in the house.

“But there’s not 25 people. There’s one of me. Maybe two if my partner is there. Maybe four if we call for backup,” she shot back.

And therein lies the problem.

We as a society have created chasms of inequality and estrangement that benefit some of us at great cost to others. And those of us with privilege don’t care to know those oppressed, because we don’t want a claim laid on us: to listen, to care, to help, to be at risk in the way experienced by the one we paint Other.

And we draw a thin blue line between us, to keep us apart, to protect our Things, our Property, while the Lives on the line and the Lives on the other side of the line matter less and less.

For things to change, we will have to do three things.

  1. Lessen the pressure on either side of the line. Shift economic resources from the advantaged side to the disadvantaged side. Significantly.
  2. Add civilians from both sides of the line TO the line. Blur it with shades of other colors than blue.
  3. Reach across and through the line.

Sound impossible? Not really. What needs to be impossible is living through another week like last week.

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A prayer of breaking, and entering

cropped-p1010151.jpgHoly God

We make bold to call ourselves to your notice
before we have a chance to ask for mercy.
And yet, you meet us with grace
before a word is on our lips.

And so we come to your mercy …
We come, together, to bear together,
what none of us can bear alone.

Some of us are still weeping, Lord.
Some of us are still deep in night
and far from joy.
Be in our sackcloth and our sighing.
for you have promised that
even if I make my bed in Sheol,
you are there.

We pray not to be complicit in our silence, Christ,
so give tongue to our anguish.
We pray not to be culpable in our apathy, Sophia,
so enliven our feet and our votes and our wallets.
Break our hearts of stone, that your light
might enter in, melting us and our weaponry
into ploughshares of peace.

Like trees that stand in a wood,
we have no need or word to invoke your presence.
You are through all and in all, slayer and slain alike.
We grow toward the light of your love
and in the dark of your nourishment.
When we fall like leaves to the ground,
the wind of your Spirit bears us up
and dances us to rest.

Lift us now, Holy One,
that we might bear together
what none of us can bear alone.

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Invocation in the days of empire


O Holy God
In this season
when we are contemplating those
who would lead us
their gifts and their limits
draw our eyes and our visions
our minds and our thoughts
our hearts and our love
toward you.

Like Hannah, let us cry out to you
for our heart’s desire
Like Esther, let us respond to your call
with risky action.
Like Job, let us fall silent
at your majesty.
Like Moses, let our faces shine
with reflections of your glory.

Sing to us Lord, over the siren call of empire.
Remind us we belong to the earth
far more than it belongs to us.

You hold dominion over all the worlds
and all the ages.
What kind of God are you
that you are mindful
of us?

You reveal yourself to us in Christ,
vulnerable baby, dusty preacher scribbling in sand,
praying from the waves,
making breakfast for betrayers on the beach.
You loved us, and you love us still,
beyond our imagining.

And so you come to us,
wild and troubling Spirit
who inspires prisoners to sing
and then breaks their chains.

You come among us,
dancing fiery Spirit
through the locked doors
of our upper rooms
setting the fearful to singing
setting our stories free.

You move among us now
setting us to music
like notes of the most beautiful song
and then you give us to each other
a love song to the world.


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Out of the mouths of babes …

Meditation for UNC Chapel
World Communion Sunday
October 4, 2015

When I was a kid sitting in church, my favorite thing was to find a puzzle in the Bible. Which usually meant trying to figure out the length of a cubit. Our Psalm today has a puzzle in it … it’s the first praise hymn in the Psalms, and it’s full of wonder at the good gifts God has given us.

creative commons license

creative commons license

But there’s this funny business in the second verse:

Out of the mouths of babes and infants,
You have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

That’s odd. What does it mean? What comes out of the mouths of babes? What is a bulwark? And who are the foes?

Well, the first question we can get. What comes out of the mouths of babes? Cries! Babies sleep … except when they are hungry or wet or tired … and then they cry. We’ll come back to that.

What’s a bulwark? It’s a wall or a barrier, a defense.

Who or what is God’s foe? Old Testament scholars say God’s enemy is chaos, another way to describe the void that was the wild emptiness of the universe before God created light … and land … and love.

So … how can a baby’s cry become a defense against chaos?

Daniel Stern, an expert on infant psychology, says that chaos is how a baby experiences the world. A baby is its feelings: its hunger is a hurricane of feeling washing through everything, its tiredness is a torrent tearing the baby apart. A mother hearing the cries of her baby feels an instant response. Her brain begins producing oxytocin, sometimes called the compassion hormone. Her breasts produce milk, she reaches for the baby and gazes into the baby’s eyes. They bond in love, all over again, her nervous system regulating the baby’s system, with soft sounds, gaze, heartbeat, breath.

When a mother or father picks the baby up and feeds her, soothes her, this care is everything to the baby, turning her world right-side up and making everything okay. Kind of like the spirit of God moving over the face of the waters, soothing chaos into the order of creation. Just as there is deep joy and contentment in the parent caring for the infant, I have to think God felt deep joy, too, in God’s work of creation. Why else create, except to have something to love?

It is the cry, whether of a single baby or of a world in chaos, that gives God purpose and movement and a reason to care. It is our cry that triggers God’s creative, compassionate response, giving us – as Jesus says – the kingdom.

And this brings us to our reading in Mark. Jesus has been feeding people, like a caring parent. The disciples have been arguing over which of them is the greatest. The Pharisees have been fighting over which law is the most important. And then some parents come walking up to Jesus, bringing their children to Jesus so that he might touch them. And the disciples wig out, getting all stern with the mothers. See, in that time, children weren’t the point. They didn’t have Baby Baby stores and $200 strollers. A child was a non-person, until they were old enough to work or be married off. So, the disciples were completely in line with the times … but not with Jesus.

Let the little children come to me.

Do not stop them.

It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God
as a little child, will never enter it.

And he took the children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Jesus is following the law of the heart, the same heart as was in creation, brooding over the face of the waters, responding to the cry of chaos by creating compassion and comfort and care. The same heart that heard the cry of the Israelites in bondage in Egypt, and said “Let my people go.” The same heart that spoke through the prophet Isaiah, saying “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.” (Is 49:15-16)

Jesus speaks from the heart of God when he says “Let the little children come. Do not stop them. Don’t stop the refugee children. Don’t stop the immigrant children. Don’t stop the children who don’t have enough to eat. Don’t stop the children who can’t bring themselves to eat. Don’t stop the abused children, the homeless children … do not stop them. Because all the children can do is receive. Everything they have is a gift.

The kin-dom of God, our belonging to God, this we need to learn to receive as they do … as gift. Unearned. Not about who’s first, or right, or wrong. Abundance, freely given. Gift.

This is the law at the heart of God’s world. God’s nature is an eternal readiness to give. Our nature is to cry out of our chaos. When we do, God responds. As Hagar said, God is the one who sees, the one who hears. God is a God of response. If we don’t cry out, God can’t be who God is. It is in our nature to need God’s love, and to cry out for God. It is in God’s nature to respond. This circle of love is the nature of the world created for and held in God’s compassionate embrace. Like a mother whose body aches to feed and hold her child, God aches to draw us near. And freely give. Thanks be to God.

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Improv (for) life, listening for justice

photo credit: Getty Images

photo credit: Getty Images

Whether we are facing personal conflict in our relationships, or leaning into the harder conversations of our society – like those around racial injustice and sexual identity – many of us struggle to listen to what needs hearing and speaking what needs saying.

Listening is a core competency for me as a pastor and chaplain, but I am finding listening also can be a revolutionary and democratic act: revolutionary in the sense that it can lead to transformation, and democratic in the sense that it is a responsibility that attends the right we claim to free speech. As Jacob Needleman sagely put it:

Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us. And that is a very interesting work of the human being, don’t you think?

I agree with Needleman’s thinking, and I also know I find all kinds of ways to not listen and not let the other’s thought into my mind, particularly when I disagree — or think I am going to disagree — with the speaker. (Of course, some “conversations” need to be shut down. But when they don’t, continuing to engage can feel stressful or even scary.)

I’ve found help in a couple of places. One help comes from the SAVI (System for Analyzing Verbal Interaction) approach to communications analysis, which suggests a way of engaging conflicted communication. In the SAVI approach, a controversial statement is met by the listener finding and naming three positives in what they’ve heard, and then opening up with a broad question.

This reminded me of the technique I learned at DSI Comedy for working with an improv partner’s offering: three key ways of doing “yes, and …” builds. To build on or heighten your statement (“We like ice cream!”) I can add a detail, emotion, or consequence of your statement.

Detail: “Yes, we like ice cream, especially chocolate!”

Emotion: “Yes, we like ice cream so much, we love it more than anything!”

Consequence: “Yes, we like ice cream so much, and if we don’t get it, we’re not happy.”

As you can imagine, these are also ways to connect in a situation of conflicted communication, when you might be hard put to identity three positives about a controversial statement or one you personally disagree with. This is common for me in my chaplaincy work, where I often hear a theologically tinged statement that I can’t agree with (but which it would not be helpful to critique in that moment). It is also common for me in political conversations. Here are a couple of examples.

Many times when someone is in a crisis situation, their reliance on their faith background may lead them to say things like, “I know this is part of God’s plan.” This can be heartbreaking when said in the wake of a life-threatening diagnosis, injury or even death. But I can’t just disagree; that would be like taking away a patient’s oxygen. So, how can I engage? Right. Three builds and an open question or invitational question … which might look like this:

“I hear you relying on God in this painful time.” (detail) “I am glad your faith is helping you.” (emotion) “This is such a tough situation; I might be having a hard time accepting it’s God’s plan.” (consequence) “Can you tell me more about how you are feeling?” (open-ended question)

I feel more connected to the person I am listening to – in the way Needleman describes – when I take this approach; I certainly have not shut them down or shut them out. Our conversation has a chance to continue; we may even get somewhere that may provide more comfort to the person.

This approach can work in situations of greater conflict in values, attitudes or behaviors, even situations where someone says or does something offensive or unjust. For instance, if you are in conversation where someone says something racist or sexist, one approach is to just call them on it. Sometimes the relationship (or lack of a relationship) may mean you need more nuance. Or maybe it’s just hard for you to speak up in these situations, and this structure can help you.

For instance, you may have heard comments like these recently: “I’m so tired of all this ‘black lives matter’ stuff, and crap about the Confederate flag. I mean, really, can we stop overreacting?”

If you wanted to use this technique, your reply might look like this …

“I can hear you’re tired of hearing about racial injustice.” (detail) “I can only imagine how tired people of color are, of bearing the brunt of our racist society.” (emotion) “I see people, African Americans and trans people of color in particular, pay with their lives … and I feel the need to respond, though I don’t always know how.” (consequence) “I wonder who you listen to about these issues?” (open ended question)

The point is to find places where you can identify a detail, feeling or consequence in their statement, or in your own stance.

Which, of course, means you first need to listen. I did not know when I took my first class how fundamental listening is to good improv. In fact, it is the heart of the game. When the leader calls out, “Players, are you ready?” … the unspoken part of the question is, “… to listen?”

And in listening, to hear each other into our truer, better, more joy-full selves.

Yes! And … ?

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Week of Righteous Resistance

SURJ_color_logoShowing Up for Racial Justice is an organizing/activist group I follow and support. The following is drawn from a response they have developed for white people of faith against the burning of black churches; I hope you’ll find it useful. Let’s do everything we can to interrupt and prevent the next assault on black humanity.

SURJ is co-sponsoring the national  Week of Righteous Resistance (WORR) beginning this Sunday, July 12th and ending on Saturday, July 18th.  Please join us and our partners at the PICO Network and others by organizing or participating in one or more of the actions this week, found in this new Action Kit for White Communities of Faith.  It includes resources from 15 faith traditions as well as resources for participating in the week of action.

Our focus continues to be on centering black leadership in this moment and engaging more white people in moving from what do I do (individually) as a white person to how can we, as white people, collectively be showing up and dismantling anti-black racism and white supremacy. Please join with faith and lay leaders in this week fo action and use these resources to bring our whole selves into this struggle for our shared liberation.

In struggle —

Dara, Sam, Meta and the whole SURJ team

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No cheap grace

The key to life abundant, y'all ...

Old idea. New struggle every day.

Most of us are struck by the words Emanuel AME members speak to Dylann Roof, words that speak peace to the man who killed their loved ones, words that attempt to redeem pain by the example of a loving and suffering savior.

Without a doubt, offering this grace came at a significant cost: to rise out of the ashes of pain and show lovingkindness in this moment was an expression of the faith that has saved the lives of these people, and given meaning to years of racist oppression as well as the strength to continue to bear it.

As a white person, I don’t want to hear those words of forgiveness and feel anything more or less than called to rise to my own work: which is not to demonize Roof as so very different from me, but to understand the roots of white supremacy in the ground of my being, and continue to do my best to pull them out.

I don’t want to hear those words and think they mean I am okay and I can live my white life, without wondering every day what I can do today — not to merit that grace, but to keep from cheapening it.

The Christian faith I share with these saints not only offers grace and forgiveness, but calls me to do something with that grace and forgiveness. What am I forgiven for? How is my graced life meant to transform? Where will my love for these neighbors and the God who created us show up?

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Rachel Dolezal, Dylann Roof … and us

rachel roof

What does an impersonator of blackness have in common with a white supremacist?

Warped white responses to the racialized reality we live in. One rejected the white race card she was dealt and wrapped herself in an appropriated black life; the other rejected the humanity and right to life of black people.

White people, let’s not kid ourselves. Let’s not be distracted by psychological evaluation of these particular pathologies. Let’s wake up and realize racism is our problem, and we are only shades of denial away from this kind of crazy on the continuum that is white supremacist culture. Until we get a critical awareness of this reality and take responsibility for transforming it, these insanities will only continue, because they arise from a craziness embedded in our very soil, air, water, history.

I am too brokenhearted tonight to say more than that … I have written so many words, so many blogs, articles, books … and they have made so little difference.

I won’t stop; I’ll keep speaking whenever and wherever I can. But I have to confess, I have wearied of words, and rely on the real gestures I can and do make every day.

I make eye contact with, speak to, and respect every person of color I encounter in the hospital where I work and out in the world. I privilege the patients of color. I teach my fellow staff and chaplain students about social location and power in ministry, so that I can teach them about white privilege and how it warps us, as well as how to love through it and despite it.

I speak up in my white church, and offer myself as an educator. I will go anywhere and teach anyone the lessons I have learned about how to be an anti-racist Christian and how to move a church toward an anti-racist stance. And no, I don’t make money at that, because — as Andrea White said — we should not profit from oppression.

I have done my best to raise anti-racist kids, since I helped bring two more white people into the world — at the very least, they are race- and privilege-conscious. The stance they take will be up to them. I fuss with my loved ones and friends and hold my own stance — in a way that can be heard if possible, and if not, then annoyingly.

And none of it is enough, none of it, none of it. And I will keep on, with the little bit within my reach, over and over, every struggling day and every broken-hearted night.

I don’t let the fact that I can’t undo white supremacy keep me from committing each day to doing my part to dismantle a corner of it. I do use my personal pain to connect me to others who are OUTRAGED, FED UP, DONE with with deadliness of what racism does.

We can’t un-become white. We can’t win anything of lasting value through violence.

We can — and we must — change what whiteness has come to mean.

We can — and we must — change what whiteness does.

We can — and we must — change.

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IMG_0271When I worked for a business consultancy, I loved the pace and the learning. We worked with companies trying to make large-scale changes as quickly and efficiently as possible. The rate of growth and learning and change in these companies was steep; people would say a month in this kind of hyperdrive was like six months in normal operations. As our team moved from company to company, we felt like we were operating in some kind of quantum drive, gaining years of experience in months.

A chaplain’s 24-hour on-call in the hospital can feel like that, as if it is equivalent to six months of church life, but without the committee meetings. Yesterday I baptized a 24-week-gestation preemie who was not going to make it; I also baptized a 44 year old cancer patient who also was not going to make it. There was a woman with dementia mauled by dogs, a baby whose head trauma looked heartbreakingly suspicious – and their families, struggling with both guilt and grief. The list goes on, as do the struggles. I know that my 24 hour slice of the lives of these people is just that: just one day, in their lives and in mine.

When you have reached your limit as a chaplain and yet there is another human being already out beyond her limits, and you need to reach out to her, that means you are both reaching past your limits into a space neither of you really wants to be in. You have to accept it may not go well at all, and yet the alternative is to leave the other alone, forsaken. And so you reach. Awkwardly or skillfully, with words or without – you reach.

When that happens, it can feel – to me anyway – like drowning. And suddenly I think I can imagine where CPE came from. A chaplain somewhere, deep in the ocean of the night, finds a spar from a shipwreck and holds onto it, swimming toward morning light, bringing a couple of other people along, and then fetching up on a beach. Resting. Breathing. Then sleeping. And waking to wonder, how did I get here? And can I do it again? What will help me do it again? Because the dark ocean is full of people.

As these chaplains find each other, and compare stories, they realize they want to help each other not drown. And so, clinical pastoral education. A process for learning not to drown, led by CPE supervisors. Such simple plain words for those who guide souls through the deeps.

Can I help, I wonder, when I still need so much help myself? Can I learn to be a helper of helpers? To do that, I have to take a breath and turn over, face down in the dark ocean of my own pain, loss, memory, and suffering. This is the first courage … the one I hope will lead to the others.

It is laughable – well, it’s not, but I have to laugh – that one of the first communal steps in this journey toward becoming a CPE supervisor is called a “readiness assessment.” Let’s just call mine an unreadiness assessment, and let me get on with it. I have a breath to take, and an ocean to face.

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Is this answered prayer?

Praying people

Praying people

This is the time I have been working and hoping for; this is also the time I have been anticipating looking back from. I left full-time employment in 1997, and — an M.Div. and Ph.D. notwithstanding — have only worked part-time since. I have been blessed to have the financial and emotional support of loved ones; I know this time could have been even harder. And yet, seeking full-time employment since 2009 and not finding it has been hard enough. In the last year alone, I made the short list for five jobs and did not get one.

Until this one. I am happy to say that UNC Hospitals has taken me on, in a weird kind of studenty-work called Supervisory Education. It is a transitional path that takes one from clinical pastoral education (CPE) and chaplaincy to becoming an ACPE-certified supervisor of persons in CPE. So, it’s sort of a job in that you are doing chaplaincy as well as on-the-job training to become a supervisor and drawing a stipend; and it’s still an education and training path.

I could be bent out of shape over the low pay or the studenty status — demeaning for a Ph.D.? Or I could be grateful to have full-time, meaningful work with pay and affordable benefits that is in line with my vocation, that will both challenge and feed my spirit.

I choose gratitude. Gratitude has been my life-raft through the long white-water stretch of unemployment. During the time when I was underemployed, I did find some work here and there, and I did get some writing done, but most importantly, I think, I had time to wonder, “How do I want to look back on this time?” and to try to live into the answers.

I knew at some point the job search would end; I intended it to end this year. I would either find full-time employment in my field, or move on to some kind of secular job. At that point, when I looked back on the time between, how would I feel? Would the time I spent feeling anxious feel like wasted time? Would I feel that I had used the time like a well-earned sabbatical, learning and resting and growing and preparing?

I knew how I wanted to feel; I knew how I wanted to have spent the time. And it was hard to stay in gratitude for the time off when I wanted to be working, feeling fulfilled and like I was contributing to our family. I was and am so fortunate: my beloved often reminded me that I was contributing. My kids grew old enough to be grateful for the time I had given them.

When this position came available, I did everything I could think of to prepare not only for the interview but to accept it should it be offered. Knowing I would not be able to care for my hot mess of a puppy, I found Bo an excellent new home with stay-at-home people who had other dogs and a fenced yard and who loved him on sight.

And, knowing time for a wedding would be hard to come by after I started working, my beloved and I took the time to get married in Pennsylvania. News I had gotten this job came the day before our wedding day: I can’t fully describe the relief I felt in that moment, the joy. To feel that I would be able to keep my promises, to be completely unencumbered by doubt and grief going into this sparkling day, to have this joy to share — so much yes!

So, dear reader, I put the question to you. Where in all of that was the answer to prayer?

Was I some kind of good person who had worked and struggled long enough, and God threw me a bone? The job was the answer to my prayers?

I have to say, no. I don’t think so. I don’t believe so.

If I have said that I do not believe in a puppeteer God who gives people cancer or takes their babies because heaven needs another angel, then I also have to say I do not believe in a God who gives people jobs.

Where, then, was the answer to my prayers?

Do I even believe there is such a thing as answers to prayers?

I know I don’t know who or what God is. I can only perceive in limited ways. So, here is a limited perception. My tradition tells me that God is love. Recent interpreters of my tradition have told me that what we call “God” is more a verb, than a noun … so, it’s more accurate to say “Godding is loving,” than to say “God is Love.”

I have perceived this loving in the support I felt from people around me, tangibly and intangibly.

I have perceived this loving as the instinct arising within me to turn from my anxiety over what wasn’t toward gratitude for what was and is.

I have perceived this loving as the strength given to me to keep my heart open — to strangers, to oppressed and hurting people, to my children, to my beloved, to God — even as my apertures kept trying to close down to keep out the pain and fear and loss that fills the world around me, and that my own psyche manufactures.

These have been answers to prayer. These have been the oils of gladness that have kept my scarred heart supple enough to open to the joy of today.

May you find your prayers answered, with whatever you need to keep your heart open to live and love another day.

Posted in Clinical Pastoral Education, Dogs, Doubt, Love, Parenting, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments