on Psalm 10
New Revised Standard Version
Several weeks ago it was at a greenhouse under the South African sun. It was with two friends, one from South Africa and one from England, both in Cape Town now chasing the kingdom hard and fast. One works to transform the way housing is addressed for those living in informal settlements by way of valuing inherent wisdom, skill and reality. The other is working to address issues of gang violence, trauma, and youth development not only in Cape Town but in the hearts and plans of those around the world.
A few weeks later, it was in Nashville, Tennessee. We were talking about whether hot chicken was hot enough or too hot as we prepared for a wedding a few hours later. Friends without the pretense of worry of doing it right or doing it fancy, it was a celebration of choosing to do it and do it together. Friends willing to push through the new uncertainty of what it means to be a community surrounding those who are choosing to do life together. Friends who will argue over the heat of Nashville’s hot chicken in the morning, pretend not to cry at a lifelong commitment in the afternoon, and dance like no one knows what dancing is supposed to look like in the evening.
And this week, like last week, and like the other weeks in between was at the altar rail at a little church on the north side of town. Hands out, breath held, eyes up, it all swelled together. I’ve heard my priest and favorite friend say before that when we kneel at the rail, we share in communion with those with us in that moment, those who are gather at Christ’s table around the globe, and those who have both joined the table in centuries past as well as those who will come after us with the same assurances and the same uncertainties as we knelt at the rail today.
This morning, hands out, I joined them. I joined my brothers and sisters in Cape Town. I joined my sisters and brothers over hot chicken in Nashville. I joined my own local church community, and all those who were at their own churches both in my own city and in cities around the globe and through the ages.
I’ll work toward justice tomorrow and push against institutional power and greed.
I’ll seek beauty and laughter and silliness tomorrow with adults who hate it and children who love it.
I’ll do paperwork and billing tomorrow and wonder what I’m doing and why I care.
I’ll push a few steps forward into and few steps back from the kingdom of God.
And I’ll only be able to do anything at all tomorrow by the mystery of
the power that somehow shakes the rail every time I kneel,
whether at a nursery in Cape Town
or over hot chicken in Nashville
or the altar at my little church.
His kingdom comes.
Pine Tree Dr.
We come to be united with the blackened earth as we receive the mark of ash on our skin. Just as new growth surely follows the fire so new things await us as we make this journey of repentance.
Because we have covered ourselves with pride and arrogance:
Clean us and set us free.
Since we have been content with the empty and the superficial:
Fill us from the depths of love.
When we become trapped in old patterns and struggles:
Life our eyes in hope.
Even though we are broken and far short of perfection:
Form us for loving service.
After our best efforts have met with rejection and discouragement:
Encourage us still to trust.
So we bring before God all that is in our life, knowing that we can hold nothing back from the fire of love which consumes even those faults which we dearly cherish.
Let us then share these ashes from each other’s hands and know that God will surely fulfill the promise of newness within our life.
from Let Justice Roll Down
Of course the classy, enlightened thing to do on Martin Luther King Jr. Day every January remains to brighten the cold and often gray mornings by posting quotes, images and videos about having dreams, taking the first steps, and valuing love over hate. We pontificate on justice and look toward the one day when the dream he had becomes a reality, and we feel a little less xenophobic and a little more pious about ourselves.
And then we go to work, or take a day off by relaxing. And that day is often filled with complicit participation in the systems that oppress others and therefore ourselves. We participate in the dreams of power and anxiety and scarcity and fear and clamoring for the top. We participate in tempered and reasoned arguments why Yes, of course these are important issues, but this is the wrong way to go about it. We join in faceless, human-interaction-less debates about getting back to some unreal era when things were better or moving toward some unwon future when the best of humanity is realized.
But on this Monday, every year, we read a letter from a Birmingham prison, a letter in response to 8 clergy’s written request to MLK to calm down and play by the known rules, and we celebrate. We imagine ourselves in the cell with King, supporting his words and thinking his thoughts. After several years of scribbling An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere on pieces of paper and taping them to mirrors and computer monitors, I wondered what the letter written TO a Birmingham prison actually said, and if I might actually, ashamedly find myself supporting their words and thinking their thoughts.
For the causes and the groups of people in the margins those causes are iconic of, we owe our own futures as well as the legacy of King the task of identifying with how much we still speak with the words of these clergy in all their good intentions, whether we want to or not, because in all our tweets and posts about freedom and justice and oppression, we are terrified that if we don’t support the status quo we might end up on the bottom, being treated and imprisoned the way we have been treating and imprisoning others.
April 12, 1963
We clergymen are among those who, in January, issued “an Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” in dealing with racial problems in Alabama. We expressed understanding that honest convictions in racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts, but urged that decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed.
Since that time there has been some evidence of increased forbearance and a willingness to face facts. Responsible citizens have undertaken to work on various problems which cause racial friction and unrest. In Birmingham, recent public events have given indication that we all have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems.
However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.
We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experiences of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.
Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,” we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.
We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled. We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence.
We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.
C.C.J. CARPENTER, D.D., LL.D., Bishop of Alabama
JOSEPH A. DURICK, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop, Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham
Rabbi MILTON L. GRAFMAN, Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama
Bishop PAUL HARDIN, Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church
Bishop NOLAN B. HARMON, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church
GEORGE M. MURRAY, D.D., LL.D., Bishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama
EDWARD V. RAMAGE, Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States
And THEN, the letter from that prison:
Pine Tree Dr.
when we feel trapped between
the way things are and
the way we know things should be
the work we have and
the work we can actually accomplish
the hours in a single day and
the heartaches in a single day
the insolvable injustices and
the imperative to seek and to do justice
the eyes of those we publicly hold responsible and
the eyes of ourselves that we privately shield from responsibility
we ask for a deeper and more burdening reminder
that you are the one who has built us
to be unsettled and undone
until justice comes
until peace flows
until humanity looks like itself again
until humanity is an icon of you again
and in that deeper and more burdening reminder
we ask that you would give us
deep heartbreak and
that kingdom comes and
that kingdom will come on earth as in heaven
and until the finally,
we work toward the impossible things we have no power to change
knowing the desire to work toward them
is a gift from the God who has a habit of doing impossible things
beyond even the tragedy of a teenage life lost
which is tragedy enough all by itself
is the tragedy that we cannot have
a conversation about the place in which we find ourselves
that goes beyond Trayvon
we have a story on our hands that rocks the airwaves
and makes for good television, whether legal or talk or music or news
and the story gets stuck in the soundbites
ignorant and hollow and poorly polarized
that sell ads for laundry detergent and weight loss aids
and all the while
there’s an issue on our hands
much greater than Trayvon Martin
which is by itself the loss of a teenager walking down the street
and is a great loss all its own
we have an issue on our hands that makes it impossible
to have real and needed conversations with people of the “other”
we know by name, not our token “other friends”
about what it means to live
and in the meeting of our differences
we might find the answers that could lead us
from violence and hip-shooting ignorant vigilantism
to the deep and horrifying and necessary conversation
about what it means to work toward
a day when everyone,
becomes perfectly alike and different together
celebrating kingdom come.
toward the ordered throwing of stones.
But, because we can’t think outside the lines
given us by the news that sells laundry detergents and weight-loss aids
we run the risk of being stuck in a conversation that ends
with more hatefulness, ignorance and racism.
But, because we know we are ultimately able to think outside the lines
we run the risk of asking questions that citizens of the kingdom ask
with more compassion, empathy, and christlikeness.
and the story changes depending on which risks we decide to take.
God give us courage to take good risks.
Pine Tree Dr.
OTHER POSTS ON RACE AND RISK AND COURAGE
She told me that it’s obvious to her who is from the city or lives in the city, and who is a tourist trying to pass as a local. I tried hard––quite hard I might say––to be a local. My fanny pack was left at home, I wasn’t looking up for the top of each building I walked past, and I pronounced the number nine like a good midwesterner rather than a good Tennesseean.
The giveaway, though, was that I didn’t have train legs.
She was in her seventies, groceries in tow, because that’s apparently what you do if you’re a local, and she was watching my knees buckle each time the L hit a bump, wiggle or stop in downtown Chicago. It was the ride back out from a weekend trip that was supposed to be with a friend who couldn’t come at the last minute, so I was a single dude spending a weekend in the city I thought of as home for two years in college.
My ride from Midway into town found me wearing my white earbuds plugged into my second generation iPod (you’re welcome) looking out the window of the Orange Line as we (me and all these strangers) made our way into the city. I don’t remember the song, and the fact that I remember the moment without the song makes it all the more important to me. Jostling into downtown, my legs apparently giving me away more than I realized, I found myself gazing out the window noticing that times like these are things of movies and soundtracks, people and lives and entire worlds passing by as the music plays to make sure that you know that every moment of what you are seeing is important for something that’s coming in the story, or for something that has just happened that you’re still chewing on.
It wasn’t until my trip out that I was informed that my legs gave me away as an outsider.
Now, in the small, rural West Tennessee town that holds my work and family and friends, I often forget that were I to add a soundtrack there is great importance to the transit, the one mile commute to work, the people standing on the side of the road, in front of me in line, in the waiting room at the office, on the other end of the phone. And my realizing that the soundtrack is––or at least should be playing––makes me more aware that I am using my non-city legs, perhaps my small, rural West Tennessee town legs, to navigate these waters in ways that hopefully do justice and love mercy and walk humbly in the town that is and has been home for quite some time.
It’s worth a soundtrack, I think. The people must be.
And we will spot your city legs. ha.