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.

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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: 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. 

Weekend Reading (best enjoyed with a pumpkin spice latte)

If you do nothing else, please watch this:

The reads:

Faith, Doubt and the Idol of Certainty
“An idol, I argue, is anything we use in place of God to meet this core need. While many people try to meet this need with the idols of wealth, power, success, sex and other such things, many Christians try to meet it with the idol of certainty-seeking faith. The quest to feel certain becomes an idol when a person’s sense of significance to God and security before God is anchored not in their simple trust of God’s character, as revealed on the cross, but in how certain they feel about the rightness of their beliefs.”

Come Hither Men, For I Have Sex Demons
(Thanks for sharing this one, Beth!)
“In my Church youth group, one the youth leaders lamented what I was doing wrong.  He too, wanted to know why young men were always coming on to me.  He was ‘ashamed of me,’ he said.  The words cut in, drug down slowly, twisted and lacerated my back deep enough to puncture my soul.  Because, again.  There it was.  It was my shame.  It was my fault.  Perhaps, he pontificated, you have ‘hyper sexualized demons’ communicating with other men with the same set of demons.”

A Little Bit of Judgement can Kill a Lot of Gospel
“To me, the Gospel begins with a God who is walking the garden in the cool of the evening calling out to us. And though we hide ourselves in shame, that call to COME remains. It’s woven throughout the Old Testament as the prophets told the Israelites that God felt like a jilted lover. It’s there in the tears of Jesus as he mourned over Jerusalem before his death. It’s in the final words of the Bible as the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!'”

Red Lines: Rape is a Prohibited Weapon of War
“In whose world is the rape of millions and millions and millions of women an unimportant side-effect? Only someone whose worldview intrinsically strips women of their full humanity and equal right to justice. These rapes failed to be considered significant enough, ‘unjust’ enough, to change the moral equation of war. This is so patently absurd that it’s difficult not to respond by just laughing at how pervasively misogynistic our international standards for behavior, and justice, are.”

100% Natural Products Can Be Chock Full of GMOs
“The customer service representative confirmed that there is a 70-80% likelihood that any and all Lean Cuisine products (including this Honestly Good line) contain GMOs and could not guarantee their product labeled 100% natural is free of GMOs.”

From the Mouths of Rapists: The Lyrics of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines
“Ultimately, Robin Thicke’s rape anthem is about male desire and male dominance over a woman’s personal sexual agency. The rigid definition of masculinity makes the man unable to accept the idea that sometimes his advances are not welcome. Thus, instead of treating a woman like a human being and respecting her subjectivity, she’s relegated to the role of living sex doll whose existence is naught but for the pleasure of a man.”

God so ‘dvu’-d the World
“There was complete silence for three or four minutes; then tears started to trickle down the weathered faces of these elderly men. Finally they responded. ‘Do you know what this would mean?  This would mean that God kept loving us over and over, millennia after millennia, while all that time we rejected His great love. He is compelled to love us, even though we have sinned more than any people.'”

Dear parents, you need to control your kids. Sincerely, non-parents
(Thanks for sharing, Emili!)
“I’m no math major, but that calculus makes no sense. A kid going berserk at a grocery store doesn’t indicate the quality of his parents, anymore than a guy getting pneumonia after he spends six hours naked in the snow indicates the quality of his doctor. Grocery stores are designed to send children into crying fits. All of the sugary food, the bright packaging, the toys, the candy — it’s a minefield. The occasional meltdown is unavoidable, the real test is how you deal with it.”

Why does Wisconsin send so many black people to jail?
“The state that locks up the highest percentage of black men is Wisconsin. The national average is 6.7%, but in Wisconsin it’s 12.8% – more than three percentage points higher than the second-placed state, Oklahoma.”

Weekend Reading (and why there is Christmas in my heart)

I keep thinking of Christmas carols this week.  Maybe it’s the crisp edge on the air in the mornings as I nurse my coffee.  Maybe it’s the Apple Chai candle I busted out this week.  Maybe it’s that the pumpkin spice latte is back at Starbucks.

But I think it’s because I’ve been praying for peace.

Pray for peace people everywhere,
Listen to what I say
The Child, the Child
sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light

And in despair I bowed my head
‘there is no peace on earth’ I said
‘for hate is strong and mocks the song
of peace on earth good will to men

then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead nor doth He sleep
the wrong shall fail, the right prevail
with peace on earth good will to men

I don’t remember a time in my life when I’ve prayed so much or so fervently for peace.  For shalom to come.  For God’s kingdom to finally, fully breakthrough.

As we pray for peace, these thoughts on Syria

In Which Redemptive Violence is a Myth for Syria
“As followers of Jesus, we are meant to live the ways of our Saviour into every corner of our existence. In this instance, I support and engage with efforts advocating for immediate care of refugees, worldwide diplomatic pressure and dialogue, particularly with Syria’s neighbours and allies, and a strong commitment to the practice of non-violence. We should be the voices and hands of peace making in our world. Walter Wink calls this “the third way” – the action alternative from military intervention and isolationism.”

Hello, Heritage. Goodbye, War.
“I bear witness to this God who hears the cry of the oppressed.
I bear witness to the work and heart of a Beautiful God who carries our shame and, as we hand it over, exchanges it for glory.
…It’s in this place that I still get to stand and invite you to pray with us–a throng of barefoot, audacious pray-ers–believing we are joining our cries with the cries of the oppressed and God will hear our prayers.”

A Letter from the Trappist Nuns in Syria: “Blood fills our streets, our eyes, our hearts”
“They are trying to kill hope, but we must hold on to it with all our might.”

Praying for Peace with Pope Francis
“Holy Gardner
peel back the bitter layers
or our withering hearts
that the tender petals of patience
may quiver in the light of your love.”

Other good reads from around the web

25 Biblical Roles for Biblical Women
“What is a timeless principle is that both men and women should be taking their lead from Jesus.  We should be emulating his character, as well as displaying and using the fruit and gifts of his Holy Spirit to actively bless our families and the church, and to further God’s kingdom.  We should be careful that we don’t limit people or promote passivity.”

When an adult took standardized tests forced on kids
“He continued, ‘It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate…It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.'”

Seeing a Woman: A conversation between a father and son
“A woman, or any human being, should not have to dress to get your attention.  You should give them the full attention they deserve simply because they are a fellow human being.  On the other side, a woman should not have to feel like she needs to protect you from you.  You need to be in control of you.”

Miscalculating Racism: Life on a Christian College Campus
“What I was left with, as I reflected over my own experience, was that my time at this mostly white Christian college was harsher than my time at the mostly white suburban public school. But how could that be? How could my time among white Christians have been filled with more racial prejudice and hostility than among white non-Christians?”

Open Letter to New Testament Students
 “I promise to leave you with a Jesus who is worth following, a Christian vocation that’s worth risking your life on, and a Bible that will guide you toward both.”

My most-read post this week:
Spiritual Disciplines for Kids: Why?