Sunday, May 18, 2008

can we talk?

“Baptists don’t baptize infants,” I heard some say not long ago, “they ordain them.”

In the spring of 1977, in the summer after my junior year in college, I was called as pastor of Pecan Grove Baptist Church near Gatesville, Texas, which meant I needed to be ordained. In early June, an ordination council was convened (right before my ordination service) and pastors and deacons from the other local churches came to ask me questions. One of them said, “How do you explain the Trinity?”

“If I could do that,” I answered, “I’d write a book.” Everyone laughed and we moved on to the next question.

In the years following, I’m not sure I’m any closer to an explanation, but I do have a greater understanding of who God is. It’s not for nothing that Genesis recounts God saying, “Let us create humanity in our image.” The plural pronoun points to the relational complexity of God from the first. It also makes me think of the opening of Mary Oliver’s “Poem”:

The spirit
likes to dress up like this:
ten fingers,
ten toes
Whoever God was (is) from the beginning, incarnation and relationship burst from the core of God’s being.

On Sunday mornings at our house, we watch TV preachers while we’re getting ready for church. I’m not sure it gets us ready for church, but it’s what we do. This morning, we split time between Ed Young, Jr. and Joel Osteen. Young was talking about how to be “good and angry” and did some good work talking about how our anger is fed by fear, so we had to learn how to face our fear in some other way than exploding in anger. Osteen was talking about broadening our world, encouraging folks to do things they had never done before because it was the only way to keep growing.

Somewhere in the middle of the second sermon, I looked at Ginger and said, “They say some good things but I’m not sure they are ready to live with the consequences of their theology.” I don’t know that for a fact; it’s a hunch on my part – maybe even a prejudice. But my comment came back to me in the middle of the wonderful sermon preached by Carla, our Minister of Christian Education, who was recounting our church’s decision, in 1964, to baptize an African-American child. The pastor had made it clear he was going to do it. The deacons met and voted to support the pastor. One of the deacons came home and told his wife about the meeting. “How did you vote?” she asked.

“As we were talking,” he said, “I thought, ‘How could I vote to not baptize a child?’”

On this Trinity Sunday, our church, along with many other UCC churches around the country, was beginning a “sacred conversation” about race. The idea grew out of the initial burst of media coverage of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who is a UCC minister. Our denomination (like it’s predecessors) is committed to a theology of justice and inclusiveness. We ordained an African-American man to pastor an all white congregation before the Civil War. We ordained women sixty years before they could vote. We ordained the first openly gay pastor in the early seventies.

“Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey,” we say, “you’re welcome here.”

“God is still speaking. There is more light yet to break forth.”

The consequences of that theology call us to do more than play into the media feeding frenzy or run for cover or do anything other than try to come to a deeper understanding of one another, each of us created in God’s image – and this time working hard to begin a meaningful and redemptive conversation about race. Carla was not far into her sermon when she quoted Rev. Peter Gomes, who spoke recently to a UCC clergy gathering here in the Triangle. Gomes was clear in placing at least part of the blame for how Wright was perceived and received by the American public: “Jeremiah Wright was preaching the gospel. What are you preaching that no one recognized it?”

Carla went on to say we might think Wright was wrong in claiming the US government might have had something to do with creating AIDS, yet our government did do life-altering, if not damaging, medical experiments on African-American men without their knowledge as late as 1972, which is the same year Jeremiah Wright became pastor of Trinity UCC in Chicago. Though I have no desire to ask God to damn anyone, he is right about our lack of care and concern for the poor and marginalized in our nation.

I’m not trying to write in defense of Wright as much as work to follow the consequences of my theology. Beginning a sacred conversation about race on Trinity Sunday makes sense to me because believing that we are created in the image of a God who could be the One being baptized in the river, the voice in the heavens, and the dove descending all at the same time; the God of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, of Jacob and Esau, of Cain and Abel; the God who, through the course of human history, has called humanity to come to terms with the inextricable connections between us: we, like God, are many and one at the same time.

One of the working definitions of racism Carla used today was “choosing my rights over your humanity.” Not your race. Your humanity – as in, like my humanity. It sounds a lot like Jesus’ admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves – live as though they were as human as we think we are.

Our nation was nearly one hundred years old when we went to war against each other, partly over issues of race and humanity. Two hundred years on saw us still hedging our bets when it came to seeing all of us as fully human – and it wasn’t simply a “southern” issue. The Boston Public Schools didn’t integrate until the mid-seventies. I dread the presidential campaign in the months to come because I expect a whole lot of dehumanizing racist rhetoric to hit the airwaves at full volume, doing its best to shout down any meaningful conversation.

If we, as people of faith, are not willing to throw open our hearts and talk to one another then the toxic tirades will destroy us all. The title of Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope was taken from one of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. I love the phrase because it is prophetic and pastoral, renewing and redemptive. We are audacious to hope for a world where we could move as fluidly in relationship as the God in whose image we are made, that we could grasp, as Paul says in Ephesians, how deep and wide and high God’s love is so that we would trust that love as the environment in which we relate to one another, rather than the vitriol and violence that fuels what passes for conversation in our wider culture.

If I am to come to terms with the consequences of my theology, these words are a good start. They are the prayer of confession we prayed in unison in church today.
Living God, we come before you and each other today to search our ways and thoughts and to acknowledge the truth of our personal and collective journeys, in holy anticipation of your transforming grace.

We confess how often we neglect to respond and refuse to listen to your voice calling us into communion with you and into your cleansing love.
We prefer to listen to ourselves.

We confess our often we neglect and refuse to heed the cry and pain of all our neighbors on life’s journey.
We prefer to listen to ourselves.

We confess how often we neglect and refuse to address the legacy of genocid, slavery, and colonialism
We prefer our slanted histories and selfish liberties.

We confess how often we neglect and refuse the unity of your one Spirit over all the earth.
We prefer the prison of our pride and divisions.

We confess how often we neglect and refuse to stop the hate, oppression, and violence inflicted on those who are different.
We prefer our own safety and comfort.

We confess how often we neglect and refuse simply to love you with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves.
We prefer to love our gods and ourselves more than we love you and each other.

Loving God, we repent of our neglect and refusal to follow your ways and thoughts. We pray that you will have mercy on us, forgive us, and free us to know, embrace, and live truthfully and wholly in you and in each other, now and always. Amen.
I think I’ve got my work cut out for me just coming to terms with the consequences of that prayer.

Peace,
Milton

8 comments:

Simon said...

Milton, it's a wonderful thing that a reader of your reflections in such a distant part of the world happens to be married to a women who grew up in Gatesville, Texas, a place that has been part of your own journey.

Thank you for writing as you do.

Cecilia said...

This is so powerful Milton. Thank you so much.

Pax, C.

Kevin J. Bowman said...

Your benediction is Amazing, what is it out of, so I can use it in a service sometime?

Mim said...

Thanks again for your powerful words..you are an amazing writer
Mim

Jimmy said...

Milton,

I read my other RSS feeds for fun and information. i read your blog for a spiritual pin-in-the-butt. Thank you! I truly feel you should consider a book of spiritual essays.

Pistol Pete said...

Thanks for the deep reflection on a timely subject.

gander said...

Nail, meet Hammer. Square on the head.

There are consequences to our shared theology (and to our private theologies) that perhaps we are not ready to face up to, in reality. You place the problem before us with passion and eloquence, and I am grateful to read your words.

don't eat alone said...

Kevin

The prayer is adapted from something at the UCC website (ucc.org) worship resources. You are welcome to use it.

Peace,
Milton