The Poetry of Politics

There will be losers.

There will be winners.

Pray we don’t live as either.

Pray we live otherwise,

By a greater light –

Prose yields to poetry,

The human heart emerges.

Look! Over the long horizon,

Bending toward us,

The community of the beloved,

Home for us all.

As I was preparing last Sunday’s sermon, I thought of so many life-giving conversations I have had over my time as a pastor that were political in nature. When the political conversations were about the horse race, who was going to win or who was going to lose, or whose tribe was superior, they were definitely not life-giving, for any of us. But when, by God’s grace, the conversation slips from the prosaic to the poetic, when it moves to the level of the heart, when we speak of our loves and longings for our common life, of what we are hungering and thirsting for, then it is as if a horizon opens, and we stand on solid and common ground, and the beloved community Dr. King spoke of becomes a possibility, our ultimate home, a foretaste of the realm of God. In thinking about those deeper conversations emerging from our shared longing, the lines above came to me. I share them here with a prayer that we all of us, regardless of how this day ends, will allow the poetry to have its way, and that we may emerge more unified, more closely approximating the beloved community. Because Dr. King was right, “We must live together as brothers (and sisters) or perish together as fools.”

Black Lives Matter

“N*****r lover!”

I heard it, piercing through the usual noise of kids playing during recess at my elementary school. One student was yelling it at another. Both of them were white. One of them had done or said something that made him the target of the other. To this day, I remember both the phrase, and the response of the one it was yelled at, clearly. He looked up at the red face of the kid who yelled at him and said, “Am not!”

And so it was that they both agreed in that moment that one thing neither of them wanted to be was a person who loved Black people.

I grew up in a place and at a time when it was not unusual for me to hear racial slurs like the one above. For some of my friends and acquaintances…and relatives, the “N-word” rolled off the tongue with the same ease as the word “Y ‘all.” It was just part of the vocabulary of the culture.

I look back on those days with thanksgiving that my mother, going against the cultural grain, told us she better never hear that word or any other racial slur escape our lips. But just because I never said the word doesn’t mean I didn’t drink in the culture of white supremacy that surrounded me and lay within me.

It’s painful for me to write that, but true. White supremacy was part and parcel of my culture growing up.

I have spent the better part of the last fifty-plus years learning the contours of that upbringing, coming to terms with it, and paying attention when I fall back into patterns that subtly convey that the color of my skin is somehow of more worth than someone else’s.

Over the last several years, and prominently in the last few months, I have had to confront structural racism. At times I have been resistant to see racism as structural. After all, I thought, racism is an individual, moral problem. If individuals could overcome their own racial biases, one at a time, then racism would be a thing of the past. When I start thinking that way, I am thankful for voices throughout my life who have reminded me that race is not just an individual failing. It is a systemic failing, one that intersects with gender, class, sexuality, and other dynamics to create an environment in which some lives are valued more than others. Looked at this way, I can stop being so defensive. To say there is such a thing as systemic racism is not a personal attack against White people; rather, it is an acknowledgement that we are one community of human beings, and that this is a problem that has to be addressed as a community.

Or as Paul wrote in Corinthians, “When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.”

Whenever someone talks like this in church, they are often met with the line, “Politics doesn’t belong in the church.” I admit I have often said the same. But as a Presbyterian Christian, I know nothing could be further from the truth. Presbyterians have always valued education and a deep engagement with the culture, bringing the Gospel to bear on real life. Politics, insofar as it is the means by which we determine how we will structure our common life, is vitally important to us all and cannot be separated out from our faith lives and our spirituality.

When I came to this church in the summer of 2004, we were heading into a presidential election. That fall, just a few months into my time here, we decided to have a series of Wednesday Night Live sessions entitled, “Politics and the Theology of the Cross.” I remember being so inspired by the ways you all came together to talk politics, to express both agreement and disagreement, and to discover what it looks like to love one another across differences. I will never forget the night that Hugh DuPree, then the Chair of the Williamson County Republican Party, debated Jim Mahurin, who said he was there to represent the Democrats of the county – both of them. What we learned form both of these friends is that our faith doesn’t deny or silence our politics, but it gives us a framework to talk about them without becoming partisan and mean-spirited and self-righteous.

After all, if we all worship the one God of Israel, revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, then we know we must guard against the idolatry of imagining God as either a Republican or a Democrat. God is God, and we, and all our ideologies, are not.

When we look at the world that way, we discover ways of being with one another that lift up and not tear down, that speak with respect and not derision, that always embrace the humility that knows there is so much more yet to learn.

This week in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) we are engaging in a Week of Action. It is centered in the conversations that have been happening across our nation regarding race. I pray that each of us can engage with this week in ways that recognize Black Lives Matter not as a partisan exercise, but a deeply faithful attempt to talk politics in church in ways that recognize the work still to be done so that all our human siblings, no matter their color, can flourish in the ways God intends for all.

Paul had it right – “We are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.” May it be so.

 

 

Love in the Time of COVID-19

I was driving yesterday. There are not many cars on the road in these days of quarantine. Suddenly, a SUV quickly came up to the rear of my car, swerved to the passing lane, and raced by me. I caught a quick glance of the driver and wondered where she could be heading so quickly at a time when everything has slowed down. Then I thought of one of my favorite pieces of literature, Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This poem is the result. I share it not to make light of these very serious times, but recognizing that one of the ways we get through such times is acknowledging our full humanity, with all the complexity and beauty that entails. I share it along with a prayer for all to be healthy and whole, and in the hope that these days of “social distancing” will be filled with love.

Love in the Time of COVID-19
(with apologies to Marquez)

She drove past, easily
Triple the limit, affording me
Only a glance
Of her eyes – let’s say
Blue,
Of her hands – flashing
Nails – I’m going to say
The color of sun-dappled
Tulips,
Rushing not to the grocery
For the last roll,
Not to the theater for
The last show,
Not to the
Diner for the last
Supper,
(Go with me on this)
She careens toward
Home,
And the arms of her beloved,
Her breath catching at the thought
Of quiet,
Of the still night untroubled by
Fevered commerce,
Of time stretching out
For as long as the fever
Lasts.

Following

I am more and more convinced of the simple Christian truth that doctrine, important as it is, is only the simplest of beginnings when it comes to professing faith in Christ. Doctrine is too easily manipulated, too quickly used to draw up sides and cast stones. Doctrine is necessary, but alone…it is not enough.

Jesus did not call us to assent to doctrine. He called us to follow. Until we put our bodies where our words and thoughts are, our faith is incomplete. Until our commitments line up with our creeds, our creeds ring hollow.

Of course, none of us can follow perfectly. We respond to God’s grace and rely on God’s grace. That’s the hard truth behind the call to take up our cross and follow. It is in the cross where we find the grace that enables us to walk in the way of Christ.

In the end, I believe we who claim Christ are being formed in the shape of the cross, the shape of self-giving love. May it be so for us, for the sake of the world.

Bright Room

The sun sets in the west

(As you know).

What you may not know

Is the wisdom

Of whoever decided

To build all the houses

On our street

Westward facing,

So we might behold

In our sun-blinded, enlightened

Bedrooms something of the glory,

Each evening,

Of that first morning,

When the angels sang

And God said,

“It is good.”

A Quick Poem on the Longest Night

If it was the summer solstice

It would, even now, be shimmering,

The rocks and trees aglow,

Hiding in the light the fact that each

Day would be shorter than the next,

The darkness gaining ground.

But on this, the longest night,

The lingering darkness harbors

No illusions.

It is as dark as it can be.

Tomorrow, and the day after,

Light regains its footing,

A sign,

Surely?

Sermon on Eve of Eclipse

This is the sermon I preached on August 20th, 2017, the day before the “Great American Eclipse,” as it is being called. The eclipse comes at a time when we continue to struggle in our nation with the light and dark we see in others and in ourselves. The text was Mark 8:22-26. This was also the last in a series of sermons based on themes from a book by David Brooks called “The Road to Character.”

“Character in the Age of the Selfie”

“I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”

Jesus doesn’t seem to get it right the first time. That may be why Matthew and Luke – who had Mark in front of them as they wrote their gospels – leave out this story, and why the lectionary committee that assigns the readings we use throughout the year, omit it as well.

The blind man’s friends bring him to Jesus, begging him to heal their friend. The blind man says nothing. He continues to say nothing as Jesus takes him by the hand and leads him, presumably alone, out of the village. It is there, in that alone place, where honesty can happen. After spitting in his eyes (the NRSV cleans it up a bit), and laying his hands on him, Jesus asks, “What do you see?” Here is where we expect the blind man to announce he sees perfectly.

But no. He’s honest. “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”

I’m not so hung up on the fact that Jesus’ first touch doesn’t heal the man fully. What I love about this text is the blind man’s honesty. He knows his healing has begun, but it is not complete. He knows he sees only in part. He knows he sees people, but not as people. For now, they look like trees, walking. He is on the way, but he needs a second touch.

I don’t know about you, but I think we are all of us standing in the same spot as that blind man out there alone with Jesus, awaiting the second touch. We come here Sunday after Sunday, listening for the Word, trying to make our way in the world by the light of Christ, and then something happens, and all we thought we knew changes.

My friend John tells the story of a man coming out of a funeral service and asking him, “Pastor, is cremation a sin?” John replied that he, and the PCUSA, believed that it was not. The man said, “Well, it used to be. What happened?”

We’ve stood at many moments like that in the church, especially one like ours that is 206 years old. There are a lot of used-to-bes. Used to ne that playing cards was a sin, dancing was a sin, drinking alcohol was a sin, marrying someone of another race was a sin, owning slaves was not a sin, and it was a sin to ordain a woman as an elder or minister. What happened?

Well, I think at least part of what happened is that we recognize afresh in each generation those blind spots we have, that we see people, but they look like trees walking, and as the times change and the church stands faithfully in the presence of Jesus, asking for the second touch, we are given eyes to see the ways God is at work, we see more intently, more clearly.

That’s what I believe is happening now in the church and in our country. It is happening across political lines, across racial lines, in every region of the country. We are being jolted into an awareness of who Jesus meant when he said love your neighbor as yourself. We know that we must stand and say in this moment, without equivocation, that white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and Nazism is antithetical to all we believe as Christians and as Americans. One of the most heartening things to happen in such a disheartening time is seeing Republicans and Democrats and people from the south as well as other parts of the country, come together in this assertion, saying something most of us never dreamed we’d have to say in 2017.

But, as your pastor, that’s the easy part. It is easy for me to stand in this pulpit and denounce white supremacists and Nazis. And it is necessary. But there is something else necessary as well, and not nearly as easy.

Not long ago, I was driving in East Nashville and stopped at a light. I saw three African Americans walking up the sidewalk. I locked the car doors. And instantly I remembered my friend Perryn talking to me years ago, at Bethel College, where we were both students, telling me that as a white man I would never know the feeling of hearing car doors lock as you walk down the sidewalk.

Just last summer, I was standing in front of a book store in Portland, Maine. Kim was about to take my photo, when out of the corner of my eye an African American man approached. I flinched. He put his arm around me and smiled, wanting to get in the photo. But my first thought was fear, a fear I suspect would have been absent had he been white.

Wendell Berry, in the novel Jayber Crow, says that hate happens quickly, but the work of love is long and slow. It is easier to let my fears take control than do that long, slow work.
This is the hard part. The honest part. The part where I tell you I see people, but they look like trees, walking.

I wonder how many people could say that tomorrow, at a little after 1 p.m. They say that as the moon effaces the sun, at totality, crickets, which are normally quiet in the day time to avoid predators, will begin chirping. Cows and horses and birds will all, in their confusion, begin behaving as they do at night, scrambling for the barn, heading for the nests.

I mean, we have the benefit of preparation. The eclipse seems to be the only thing that can overshadow President Trump in news coverage. We buy viewing glasses, scout out the best location to be in the path of totality, close school systems, listen to safety warnings, and, yesterday on the way to Memphis I saw road signs every few miles warning motorists not to stop on the highway or park on the side during the eclipse. We are ready. But the poor animals, it hits them cold.

And yet. Annie Dillard, in a classic essay she wrote after viewing a total eclipse in Washington State on February 26, 1979, describes standing in a field close to Yakima. “It began with no ado. It was odd that such a well-advertised public event should have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker. I should have known right then that I was out of my depth. Without pause or preamble, silent as orbits, a piece of the sun went away.

“Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know. From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world.”

And she was ready. Appears there’s nothing like an eclipse to help you see how little you see.

This blind man stands at the beginning of a section of Mark’s Gospel when Jesus will tell his disciples three times he must die, and three times they show by their response they do not understand. They argue about who is the greatest among them, they clamor to sit at his right and his left in the kingdom, they long for power. They do not see. But they are the most dangerous kind of blind persons, the ones who believe they can see, perfectly.

We are living in that eclipse moment, the moment between the first touch and the second, when we see people in the murky, fading light, but they look like trees, walking. And the thing that may be needed most – beyond outrage and condemnation, beyond hate and blame – is humility and relationship. I think David Brooks’ book could easily have been called “The Road to Humility.” It seems that at the root of all the people he has explored, the thread that holds them together is the hard-won realization that they do not see perfectly, that they need others, they need someone outside themselves, to see more clearly. They need a second touch. In the age of the selfie, when it is so easy to create spaces where the self is the ruling authority, where all we see, hear, or say is geared to affirm what we already think we see so clearly, this is a task that will not be easy. He calls it the crooked timber tradition, the acknowledge that we are all made of crooked timber. It is a tradition that says, in the words of Bayard Rustin, “The only way to reduce ugliness in the world is to reduce it in yourself.”

That’s why I need my friends to take me to Jesus, to beg him on my behalf to help me see. That’s why I need time outside the clamorous lives we live to be alone with the One who has already touched me, has already begun that healing work in me, so I can be honest and say, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” I need the second touch.

The good news is that Jesus is ready to give it, as surely as the moon will slide on by the sun tomorrow and the light will return, and we will take off our glasses and look at each other and the world, and see, really see. May it be so. Amen.