Confession

** In the wake of the marches on Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11th and 12th I have decided to write about my journey (still in progress) of divesting myself of whiteness, and some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Before getting in to discussions explicitly pertaining to race, I believe it will be helpful to begin here – with a conversation on confession. 

I am a child of the American church. I was born into a United Methodist Church. I spent midweek mornings as a young child in an Evangelical Presbyterian Church while my Mom attended Bible Study. I spent evenings during elementary and middle school attending AWANA clubs at a Southern Baptist Church. The karate class I took was housed in a Pentecostal Holiness Church. My youth group years were smattered across time in Evangelical Presbyterian, Southern Baptist and Willow Creek-inspired churches. During college I was involved in Baptist Student Union, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Campus Crusade for Christ. I have history in U.S. evangelical Christianity. It birthed me, it raised me and it gave me many gifts.

One such gift, is understanding the place for confessing sin. I heard about it every Wednesday night without fail during the Bible study portion of AWANA. Whomever was speaking would end their lesson with an “invitation” – as any good Southern Baptist would – some more jarring than others. The consistent theme in all of the invitations was the opportunity to confess ones sins to God and receive forgiveness. I did this when I was twelve. I was too embarrassed to even raise my hand, as the speaker had requested. Having established quite an excellent reputation at church throughout my elementary school years, I felt like I would be letting everyone down if they knew I had been doing this from a place of self-service rather than obedience to God. So I confessed quietly, in my heart, in my own chair and never said anything to anyone.

I shared a similar practice of confession with people on the beach in Panama City, Florida during spring break in college. Armed with a colorful packet of artistically shot photographs, I marched out on to a beach full of college students to invite them in to conversations about spiritual things over a beer. Except, they were the only ones drinking. I remember sitting cross-legged on a beach towel while debating the existence of God with a guy a few years older than me. His face pink and warm from the sunshine and alcohol. In my head, I silently judged him for his drunkenness and the profanities he wove into our conversation, and I prayed in my head he would confess his sins. He didn’t. And neither did I.

I had forgotten that sitting in a place of self-elevation and judgement of another isn’t the Way Jesus showed us to live either.

My experience of church has always been one where confession was something we talked about a lot, but practiced very little. The unspoken message beneath the weekly invitation was that if you had prayed the words of confession printed on the back of the bulletin once, then you were set for all of eternity. There was also little need for being specific about what we were confessing either. I learned to view humanity through a lens of “total depravity” which, at that point, I understood to mean that I and everyone else was completely sinful and broken and needed total forgiveness. When you believe everything about yourself is wrong and sinful and ugly, you don’t have to practice discernment or be specific when you confess. I had prayed and confessed that I was terrible and wretched without specification silently when I was twelve, so there was no need for further practice of confession as far as I knew.

Five years ago I stumbled upon the Book of Common Prayer, which records prayers and liturgies Christians have prayed and followed for hundreds of years. It gives a structure to a persons’ prayer life and guides a persons reading of Scripture. One of the prayers I discovered in the book was the prayer of confession, to be prayed – according to some – daily:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.”

Confession for things I have left undone? Confession as part of my daily rhythm of prayer? This was new to me.

Slowly though, I began to develop a sensitivity to the things this prayer spoke to, the ways in which my life does not line up with the example of Christ in the things I think, the words I say, the things I do and the things I fail to do. As I began to come to an awareness in myself of those things, I also began to be able to articulate them to others.

As I begin to look at the ways in which white supremacy is interwoven in to different aspects of our culture and worship in the U.S. I want us to begin here, with confession. Discussions around race and justice are challenging, and can often leave us feeling paralyzed. Confession is one of the paths out of paralysis. In Twelve Step programs, the first steps are to admit powerlessness, seek a Higher Power, turn ourselves over to God for God’s care and then to take a “searching and fearless” inventory of ourselves.

For many who, like me, grew up in evangelical Christian traditions, our faith called us to the first three steps. We realized we were powerless to sin – in such ambiguous terms – and called upon God to save us. Many of us stopped there though, because our sin often tore apart our lives in subtleties and we believed ourselves recovered because our brokenness was not as visible as some. In these tense times though, we are invited to continue working the process. To take a searching and fearless inventory, in this case of the ways in which we are complicit in the system and practice of white supremacy.

May we continue to show up fearlessly to face injustice and evil wherever it lies in wait whether in our country, our cities, or in our own hearts.

 

Photo credit: Bored_Grrl.

Advertisements

The Story

One of the most sure-fire ways to get under my skin is to cop a grandiose (and often far-reaching) “Well, the Bible clearly says…” in the middle of a conversation about the intersection of faith and policy and our shared life together as humans flying through space on a living rock. There’s not much about that scenario that is abundantly clear. We exist in tensions and grey areas, always learning from one another and from our mistakes.

And yet…

And yet…

And yet…

There are some things, written time and time again, forming a consistent arc throughout Scripture. These things we seem all too ready to overlook or cast aside.

That God is with us.
That God is for us.
That God, for some reason, chose and continues to choose to work with and through us.
That God moves to draw more and more people to Godself.
That the revelation of God’s grace gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

From a chosen family, to a chosen nation, to a priesthood of believers.
From a tent, to a temple, to an ascension leaving us staring into the clouds with wonder.

The table gets bigger time and time and time again until John has a vision of a giant feast with people from every tribe, and every nation, and every tongue gathered at around the table.

Within this arc there is no space for building walls and closing doors, that’s the wrong direction.

The table never gets smaller, only bigger.
Groups of people are not kicked out, only welcomed in.

First the Jew, then the gentile.
First a call to love your neighbor, then a call to love your enemy.

So for those of us who claim this tradition, that’s the arc of our story, too. It’s not just that we read about this expansion of the God’s grace and love in a morning quiet time, it’s the pattern our lives should reflect.

First your people, who sing the songs you like…and then the people who sing the songs you cannot even begin to sing along with.

First your people, who preach the messages that feed you…and then the people who preach the messages that make you angry.

First your people with whom you know which jokes will be funny and which values may be assumed…and then to the people who could not be more unlike you.

The table always gets bigger.
That’s how the story goes, the story we signed up not just to believe but to be a part of when we decided to follow Christ.

We decided that it was more advantageous to build bigger buildings than bigger tables though. The fastest way to build a bigger building is to gather a whole bunch of similar people. We blessed this idea and called it “church growth.” I’m not sure which hermeneutic we used to get there, because when I look at the growth of the Church in Scripture it hardly seems like a bunch of similar people who gathered. The Church seemed to grow when there were a lot of people with differences who gathered in defiance of the social constructs which pushed them away from one another. The Church seemed to grow when this rag-tag group of Jews and Greeks, free people and slaves, rich and poor gathered and shared and dared want and hunger to exist in their midst.

The Bible clearly says that.

Which is inconvenient, so we ignore it.

It is inconvenient for the table to get bigger. This is not a happy-clappy, Instagrammable feast with flower crowns and microbrews.

It’s hard to come to the table with someone who sees the world differently than you do.
It’s hard to break bread and pour wine with someone who may abandon you after dinner.
It’s hard to wash the feet of one who would betray you.
But this is the way we have chosen.

It is fine if you are compelled to work for walls and new policies to keep people out in order to “keep your family safe,” just realize that is a different story you will be living in when you make that choice.

It is fine if you chose to hold on to your anger because a person or a group has hurt you, just realize you are choosing a different story when anger become the center and the animating force.

The table always, only gets bigger in this story, and it is most inconvenient to continue to choose to live in it.

 

 

(Image: mrhayata)

Fair Trade Friday: Why “Fair Trade” Matters

I’ve been contemplating buying an orange t-shirt all week.

Spring has finally arrived in full force in Milwaukee (or at least, spring has arrived for two consecutive days) and the warm temperatures have me itching to ditch my grey woolen sweaters for all things cottony and colorful.

I go back and forth in my head:
“You need a t-shirt!  Just go buy a tee, Old Navy is right down the street from your office!”

“Noooooo, you don’t NEED a t-shirt, you WANT a t-shirt.  Get a grip, Westra. If you absolutely must indulge, order from Sudara, don’t just go to Old Navy.”

“But, I really could use an orange t-shirt AND a white t-shirt because my one from last summer has a stain on it…and…why does this even matter? It’s just a t-shirt!”

Ethical consumption. The struggle is real.  I get it.

Somedays are better than others. Days when I need new jeans are the worst, because it’s already hard enough to find pants that fit well, and ethically made too? I just don’t even think I can handle it.

So why bother at all?  It’s inevitable that we, as consumers, will purchase goods brought to us by slave labor and unethical trade at some point, so why care make an effort to invest in fair trade at all?

When I come to that impasse within myself (and it happens quite often) I think about starfish.

Photo credit: Royce Bair

Photo credit: Royce Bair

You may have heard the story. A person walking along a beach, thousands upon thousands of starfish washed ashore around them. And stopping every few steps the person tosses a starfish back into the ocean. Eventually, they meet another person who shakes their head and wonders why the starfish-tosser is making an effort at all, “you won’t make a difference at all.”
But the starfish-tosser knows the deeper truth, that though they may not be able to throw all the starfish back into the sea, they have made a difference for the few they have thrown back in.

There is inevitably going to be slavery and suffering and exploitation in the world.  People are broken and greedy and we do terrible things to one another because of that.  However, just because some broken, greedy people are out there setting up systems of consumption that exploit the poor and vulnerable doesn’t mean I should just mindlessly participate in their system.

Fair trade matters not because it’s changing the entirety of the clothing/jewelry/coffee/etc. industry, but because it makes a profound difference in the lives of those people whom it does help.

Purchasing fair trade chocolate instead of a Snickers bar may just seem like an annoying, insignificant choice, but for the child who is able to attend school instead of harvest cocoa beans in The Ivory Coast it’s life changing.

Purchasing fair trade coffee may seem like you’re just paying an extra couple of dollars for your daily caffeine fix, but for Rwandan farmers, it’s providing opportunities not only for financial development but for relationships utterly destroyed in the genocides to find nothing short of resurrection.

Picking up a funky beaded bracelet as a gift for your mom, or sister, or friend may seem like a small choice, but for the mother in Haiti who has the opportunity to raise her child rather than give them up for adoption due to poverty, it changes her whole life.

Fair trade matters because there are always people behind our products, and just because you can’t help all the people or overhaul the whole system doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help the few people you are able to help. 

4196185_orig

Additionally, fair trade enterprises offer entire communities hope and resources in ways charities and relief organizations do not.   Rather than providing a single family or child with education or chickens or food, companies who invest in creating opportunities for business according to fair trade standards bring sustainable wages so people can purchase or plant food, they bring access to health care, education for children, holistic development in the community.

While charities provide important emergency relief, creating business and industry can actually lift a community out of poverty altogether and make the community self-sustaining.

When you make the choice to go fair trade, you dollars make so much more impact than just lining the pocket of a corporate  CEO, they develop communities, keep families together, give children access to education, and so much more.

Like a pebble dropped on a lake, the impact seems small but the ripples reach far and wide.

And maybe, just maybe, that makes it worth the extra dollar per cup of coffee…or holding off on that orange tee shirt.

My fair trade look of the week: 

IMG_0018 IMG_2192 IMG_0017

Dress: Thrifted, vintage
Earrings: Inverted Capiz Earrings, Trades of Hope
Scarf: Nepali Aqua Scarf, Trades of Hope
Bracelets: Offer Hope Cuff and Haiti Signature Bracelet, Trades of Hope

That We Might Listen to the Story Behind the Cry

Image Credit: Trevor Lowe

Image Credit: Trevor Lowe

It’s becoming something of a broken record.

A needle stuck, dragging through the same depression on nicked vinyl over and over, blurring notes and tones into an unidentifiable blur before yanking free and returning to beautiful music already in progress, only to come around on the next rotation.

Michael Brown.
Tamir Rice.
Eric Garner.
Tony Robinson.
Dontre Hamilton.
Walter Scott.
Freddie Gray.

The record plays on. Same song, second verse, then third and so it goes.

There will be hashtags made, twitter buzz, demonstrations, protests, outrage, riots.
There will be people who thieve by breaking into stores and there will be people who thieve by denying any story but the one they believe to be true.

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” Says Nigerian novelist Chimamaanda Ngozi Adichie.

Power is the ability to look at the past year of uprisings in the U.S. and call protesters “street thugs” who need to “go to work” and “get over it.”

Power is the ability to forget and move on when #BlackLivesMatter stops trending.

Power is having the option of living a story in which you live unchallenged. You read the things you like, you watch news which you agree with, you live with people who value the same things as you and perhaps your greatest grievance is that one neighbor across the street who refuses to take care of their dandelion infestation or their yippy dog.

Power is the position you sit in when you look at Ferguson or Baltimore and all you see are riots, when all you hear is breaking glass and fires raging, when you cannot hear the cry that is welling up and spilling over in the acts you’re too busy condemning.

“Freddie Gray is a culmination of systemic issues that have plagued communities like this all across this country.  I think the children, you know, we raise our children and we say you can be whatever you want, but unfortunately children in urban America at some point feel hopeless. And when you don’t provide them with the right educational structure and they can’t intellectually cry out and beg out their frustration and their anger unfortunately you see them turn to violence.” Notes Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby.

What if the hashtags, the marches, yes, even the riots, what if they are an attempt to tell a story that those in power simply refuse hear?

What if they are the stories of frustration, buried deep inside a young man who is innovative and passionate and hardworking, but who will fight the label of “thug” his whole life because of his skin color and zip code.

I started to listen to the other stories around me five years ago when I moved into a neighborhood where most of my neighbors are of a different culture, race and socioeconomic status than I am.  When my story became the minority story. When I made the choice to be quiet enough to hear something besides myself.

I started to learn the story of valuing the moment you’re in and the people you’re with when I became friends with those who had different rhythms of life than I.  People who would show up 20 minutes late to an appointment, but it was because they were in good conversation with a friend or neighbor, and that person is more important than a clock.

I started to learn the story of vibrant celebration, for birthdays and for graduations because every moment is a gift, and we’re blessed by God to have those moments and so we will celebrate as people who have been blessed.

I learned to laugh when I am happy, to wail when I am sad, to shout when I am angry and to experience the full range of emotions.  That sometimes skeletons need to get out of the closet and dance.

I learned about the strength of African American leaders, beyond just Martin and Malcolm.  I learned that sometimes the strongest community leader is the Grandma down the block who has stayed in that neighborhood through thick and thin, whose knees are worn, whose door is open and whom you best know not to play with.

I learned that I know nothing about what it is like to be black in America.

Or what it’s like to be poor in America.

Or what it’s like to have experienced educational injustice.

And In learning that, I pressed my ear all that much fuller to the ground. Desperate to hear, to try to catch a whisper of the story beneath the cry.

I think there is a story trying to break out. A narrative desperate to be heard.
It’s in the hashtags and Twitter feeds.  It’s marching in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore.

It’s not the story of poor black babies we need to go rescue.
Nor is it the story of  lazy “street thugs” who would rather pillage than get a job.

It’s the story of a beautiful, vibrant, strong people repeatedly stomped on, immeasurably resilient but also tired so tired of winding their story with no one to hear.  Tired of being told their story is invalid at best or, worse, that it doesn’t exist at all.

The consequence of the single story is this:” continues Adichie, “It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

So as the broken record winds it’s way around the track once more, the gauge in the wax inevitably going to catch again, perhaps we should listen more closely.

Listen to the stories of those around you, really listen.

Make friends with someone different than you are. Share your stories. Find ways in which you are surprisingly the same. 

Stop.

Breathe.

Listen again.

Get offended, and then ask yourself why.

Find space that is comfortable, ask yourself why again.

Learn to see everyone around you as a collection of tales, wound throughout their lives instead of a statistic or a stereotype.

Listen for the story behind the cry.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie quotes all taken from her brilliant TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story.

Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby quote taken from his interview with Jose Diaz-Balart on MSNBC’s The Rundown on April 28th, 2015. 

Justice in Education for All

Evangelical Christians often champion the ‘sanctity of life.’ This phrase typically refers only to abortion. Many Evangelicals argue that a culture that allows legal abortion does not truly value human life. While many Evangelicals have fought against abortion for decades, we have yet to see a movement that expands the idea of ‘sanctity of life’ to fighting for the ‘quality of life.’ If we truly believe that all life is sacred, then the logical conclusion is that once a life is born we continue to fight for that life to have equal opportunities to live up to its potential.* – Nicole Baker Fulgham

When I think about the disparities in the education system, I don’t just think about how some schools succeed and others fail, I think about the ways that our perceptions skew which schools are capable of success or failure. How the way we perceive certain students or certain neighborhoods determines whether or not we ascribe value and sacredness to their lives…

Read the rest at A Sista’s Journey.

#Justice: A Peek into Urban Violence w/ Megan Westra

“Do you feel safe?”

Well, not always.
I’m getting used to it now. The wide eyes and once-in-awhile gaping mouth. “Where do you live?”
I live in the inner city. On purpose. And I have no plans of leaving.

I have been robbed five times. I have witnessed a drug deal while sitting on my front porch. My block has been taped off with police line while the cops hunted down an armed assailant.

This is the inner city people think of when I talk about where I live, and they’re right. That is part of it.

There is violence and corruption in the inner city, but that’s not all there is…

Read the rest at A Sista’s Journey. 

Owned (A Lenten Meditation on Excess and Simplicity)

fashion

Photo: 28 Dreams via Flickr

I’ve found myself altogether discontent lately.

Maybe it’s just that I’m tired of wearing snow boots and my sub-zero parka every day.

Maybe it’s just that the sunlight never seems to come bright enough, for long enough.

Maybe it’s that as I pound out miles on the treadmill, unattainable images of which to measure beauty by flash on the TV in front of me.

I turn it off and toss my sweatshirt over the display, but the images still play through my mind.

Nothing is right.

My clothes seem stained or outdated.  The sole on the toe of my boot is coming undone.  The circles under my eyes hang heavy, despite the amount of sleep I get.  The curve of my body seems altogether not right.

My first thought is to update.

What new product can I buy?  What piece of clothing is my wardrobe missing?  How can I cover and change and contort the curves of my body and lines of my face?

How can I hide?

I am told, over and over as my feet pound on and on that this or that or some other thing will fill the hole, will make it okay.

The treadmill hums beneath me while an immaculate blonde woman explains the trends for this spring.  How eight simple pieces can carry you through the season.

I take mental notes.

hummmmmm. hummmmmm. hummmmmm.

Discontent and dull.

Like the snow stuck on the side of the road for too many months now.

I click and browse after putting Cadence to bed.

New lines, new fits, new colors, all promising what I’m lacking.

I find myself in a store.

I go through and try on shirt after shirt, a dress and new jeans.  I check the stickers and can’t justify it.

Pesky numbers.  I know how many children that sum would feed.  I know that the price would help a woman my age anywhere else start her own business, or send her child to school.

I check the tags and know the way laborers are treated in those factories.  Bangladesh. India. Thailand.  I think of the women and men and children who likely won’t see a cent from the sale of these articles of clothing they – quite literally – slaved over.

I put the items back and leave the store.

Going home, I empty my closet.

Shoes and skirts and pants tossed into paper grocery bags.

I head to the mission immediately, before I can reconsider.

Before I can talk myself back in to “maybe wearing that sweater someday.”

Before I think of an excuse to keep those shoes around “just in case.”

Dropping the bags, the sun seems brighter.  My own parka and snow boots don’t seem so bad.

I find myself thankful for their warmth and protection from the biting wind in late February.

It make me wonder…

If I’m told a million ways each day that what I wear and look like, what I paint my face with and what fills my closet, that these are the things that bring me happiness.  Yet, they leave me empty and only wanting more.  If I’m told that I am worth what I purchase and ultimately what I own, yet feel lost with these things, then who, really, is the owner?

It’s a constant battle.  I work continuously at convincing myself that the discipline it takes to live simply is worth it.  Keeping up with the Jones’s would be much easier in some many respects.

I know this though, that I am worth – we are all worth – more than sparrows and fields of flowers, more than any splendor in nature or made by the hands of humanity.  We have been bought with the highest, greatest price and ascribed worth beyond measure.

Why would I settle to be owned by anything less that the Creator and Sustainer of my very being?

A slightly more empty closet, and a few less knick-knacks about the house, and I find myself seeing things through a mirror slightly less dim.

I realize I am owned by the things I think belong to me.  That more often than not, I am possessed by my possessions.

But this is, of course, what Lent is for; it’s why we are called and commanded to live simply.

And like so many things in this life following the servant Messiah, the way out seems awkward and against every intuition.

Contentment lies not in finally obtaining that which I long for, but in seeing unveiled all I truly have and perhaps (more often than not) sharing much of what has been entrusted to my care.

Because I am the owner of nothing, and it’s only in realizing this that I find freedom from being owned.