One Sunday Morning

20180722_142146

From the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

One Sunday afternoon I read an article in  The Christian Century about the newly opened Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to  Mass Incarceration and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

One Sunday morning halfway through our summer vacation traveling through Alabama we had a discussion with our children about foregoing a usual worship service to be confronted with our sins as a country.  My explanation resulted in comments about how even away from the pulpit I could not stop teaching them.  There were a few John Calvin jokes shared before we pulled into Montgomery.

Arriving in Montgomery we parked by a sign that told us Montgomery was the center of the Domestic Slave Trade and that the place we were parked used to be a place where humans were sold.  As we read the sign silence began to descend.  It was an odd silence because the city sounds did not cease, but the other noise of our lives ceased.

The museum is housed in a building that used to hold humans as they awaited the moment they would be auctioned.  The day we visited, the museum was packed.  We slowly made our way to each exhibit between two families.  We never spoke more than the usual whispered “excuse me” and “sorry” of museum goers, yet I was completely aware of their presence.  We were staring at evil laid bare, and my skin color, which was different than theirs, connected me more with the evil than with the good.

The memorial is a sacred place.  We walked through the memorial reading the names and dates of our fellow humans who had been murdered because of the color of their skin.  More than 4,000 names were displayed.  I walked through the memorial reading of the lynchings in towns I have walked the streets, in years people I know were alive.  I wondered if I would learn someone I loved was a murderer.  I wondered how anyone I was walking beside could ever look at me and not hate me on sight for what white Christians had done.

As I came to the last corner of the hanging display section of the memorial I could hear water, realizing I had heard it all along.  I stopped to read the wall featured in the photograph, and the tears could no longer be held inside.  I took a photograph because it was allowed and turned toward the source of the water, a long wall pouring water down like a righteous stream.

I approached the water hearing in my head the words of baptism I say when I baptize babies, teenagers, and adults.  I heard these words and my tears fell as I touched the water.

. . . we set this water apart to be the waters of baptism may the person who now passes through these waters be delivered from death to life, from bondage to freedom, from sin to righteousness.  Grant that they will grow in compassion and humility. . . 

I wanted to put my whole body in the water.  I wanted someone to make the sign of the cross on my forehead and say the words of baptism to me.  I wanted to be reminded that grace and forgiveness is ours to have.  I wanted to know we could still have hope.  I wanted to know evil would not win for one more day.

I reluctantly left the water and walked through the graveyard portion of the memorial holding my daughter’s hand.  I read the invocation at the end of the memorial, wiped at my falling tears, and left with my family.

In the weeks since we visited that morning has never been far from my thoughts.  One of the lessons the creators shared was their belief that With Hope we could change the world, with a determination to never forget and a belief we could be better, we could bring healing, and that evil could be stopped.

I am left with this conviction.  We cannot change our past, but we can change the present and the future.  In order to do that we have to know our history.  We have to admit our sins, the ways the sins of others have benefited us, and our lack of commitment to working for healing.  We have to admit where we have been and are if we ever expect to change, and we must change.

We cannot be who we have been.

We cannot let evil win one more day.

We must change ourselves and the world.

We must remember, have hope, be courageous, be persistent, and have faith.

One Sunday morning the Holy Spirit held me tight and forced me to see.

 

 

Advertisements

A Newsletter Article

20170228_123249One of my tasks as pastor is to write an article for the monthly newsletter.  The following is the newsletter article published in our March 2018 newsletter.  It is the third installment in a series reflecting on our eleven years together as pastor and congregation.  Each month this year I am sharing a memory and connecting it to what we are learning today.  This article is longer and a whole lot more personal than usual.  I share it with the wider internet world to add depth to the conversation about caring for the members of our society.  This is a glimpse for you, the reader, into conversations around my dinner table.  I welcome you to come visit, share your story with us, and help us find a way to care for each other.  Thank you for reading.

_______

In March of 2008 we were in the middle of a long season of saying goodbye-for-now to loved ones.  In a year there were sixteen Witness to the Life and Resurrection Services, two of them were my family members.  In March I did not know the season would continue for months, I was simply a person grieving the death of two family members, who seemed to be spending my time leading others through the first days after death.  I would sit with families, hear stories, pick Scripture and hymns, and then stand before the community and remind everyone of the promises of our faith.

Each Lent I am reminded of that first season of funerals, and the ones that followed.  I sit with the stories of those who have died.  I remember the conversations with families.  I remember the ways our community came together to take care of all of those who were mourning.  I remember the fatigue that I felt deep in my bones and spirit as I tried to be compassionate when yet another family needed me to help them proclaim the promises of our faith.

This month when we are reeling from yet another act of gun violence against our children I find myself thinking back to the fatigue I felt in 2008.  I remember in 2008 some hurtful comments directed my way by people who thought I was not being the pastor they thought I should be.  I remember rumors reaching my ears of the supposed atrocious things I was to have said.  I remember my tears that were always close to the surface that year.  I remember questioning deeply my call to pastoral ministry.  That season was a difficult season for me, and yet there were moments of grace that still shine brightly in my memory as others reminded me of the promises of our faith.

As I write this article my heart is broken with the pain of yet round of senseless deaths, and the truth of the number of gun violence episodes of this year.  I am afraid of the funerals I will have to do if ever there is a tragic act of violence in our community.  I am trying to work for change, to help others see the truth we learn in the Gospel: that there are times when we set aside our own freedoms for the sake of the safety of another.  I am trying to comfort my own children as they talk through their anxiety at the possibility of an active shooter coming into their school, and their firm belief if that happened they would be the ones standing at the graveside crying as their dad’s casket was lowered into the ground.  Because for my children, there is no doubt their dad would die for them, or for his students, or for his colleagues.  My children remind me of the promises their dad has made them, which I know come from his understanding of the promises of our faith.

As adults we know what we would do in a stressful situation cannot be determined until that time.  We know enough to think about it, to talk about it, to prepare with training, and to leave behind the words we want said in the event the worst happens.  But we also know we are responsible for the safety of our children, even at the setting aside of our own freedom.  Because isn’t that what we do when we hold that baby (our own child or a child of our family) in our arms?  Do we not look at that baby and promise we will do everything in our power to keep that baby safe and protected?  Do we not look at our own choices and begin to change them so that that baby would be safe, from even us?  Do we not stand before God and the community and baptize that baby in the promises of our faith?

I know the intersection of gun violence and the freedom to own guns is not an easy conversation.  I grew up with guns, my step-father was a gun dealer, and I know people who hunt and those who enjoy shooting a rifle just for fun.   I can recall conversations about gun safety, and times when there was legitimate fear someone would use a gun in a fit of drunken rage.  The end result of all of those conversations was the belief that the safety of the children and the community were more important than the right to own a gun.  Unknown to my agnostic and atheist family members they were living the Gospel in a way that would make it easier for me to one day recognize the promises of our faith.

I do not have all the answers for how our society needs to change so our children do not fear going to school, our teachers and school staff do not wrestle with what they would do when faced with their life or the life of another, our medical and emergency personnel do not have to be prepared for mass shootings, and our clergy of all faiths wonder about funeral sermons that would have to be preached.  I do know one of the best ways to make change happen is to actually listen to each other, to share our experiences and our fears.  I know it is not to spread atrocious rumors about others, or to call each other names, or to make demands that our freedoms are more important than the freedom of others.  I know we can be the kind of community that has these kind of conversations because we have already had hard conversations.  We have walked through the valley of the shadow of death with each other before and we have been changed.  We have lived the promises of our faith.

Our faith is one that requires action, it is one that is all about setting aside ourselves for the sake of God.  Our faith is about setting aside our own freedom so that we can be of service to another, just as Jesus was when he walked this earth.  The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to give up our freedom for the sake of others.  Our faith requires that we love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly with our Lord.  Our faith is one full of promises of forgiveness, grace, love, joy, and peace.  Our faith is one full of promises of a community that recognizes they are only as strong as the weakest member and therefore works together to strengthen that weak one.  I remain confident we can become the kind of community eager to learn from each other, eager to protect others, and eager to demonstrate the promises of our faith.

May we be bold enough to work together to insure that never again will we have to hear the cries of our children because they had to watch their classmates and teachers die.  Let our efforts be pleasing to God until the time Christ comes again and fulfills the promises of our faith.