Thursday, May 7, 2020

Why you need to read (and pre-order) Emily M. D. Scott's book "For All Who Hunger"

I've struggled with how to begin this blog post, a review for Emily M. D. Scott's book, For All Who Hunger: Searching for Communion in a Shattered World. So I'm gonna cry uncle and use the big word that came to mind when I began reading Pastor Scott's precious, first book.


It's a word the author applies to herself a fair amount - "That fall, I build a thick skin for awkwardness." (54), "at community meetings. I settle on an awkward white-lady-lurking posture..." (124), "When my dreaded archnemesis Awkwardness shows up..." (52). But it immediately comes to mind because for the vast majority of the book Pastor Scott herself is honest about how much and how often she feels ill-fitted to the life to which she's been called.

As a pastor: "I became a Lutheran pastor against my will. I never really meant to. At gatherings of Lutheran clergy, I don’t fit in. I am young, I am female, I am not married, I do not have children" (14).

On strings of bad dates and shaken self-worth:
"I remind myself that my worth isn’t based on men who aren’t interested in me. But when you keep getting low scores from strangers, it’s hard not to think of yourself as a low score" (84).

Even when she's being decisive and powerful: 
"I call the property manager from baggage claim and feign an authoritative voice. “The basement is still filled with four inches of water and you expect me to sign a lease?”

Most poignantly, how her advocacy efforts always feel insufficient: "The days are patchy and episodic. We’re playing each day by ear, plans changing at the last minute based on which trains are running... Everything feels fragmented. Every day is piled with contingencies" (post-Hurricane Sandy, 105). "The phrase “Black Lives Matter” feels uncomfortable on my lips... because I know how terribly far I am from my life not mattering... I could have been holding a real gun, and [the police] would have coaxed it out of my hands" (Black Lives Matter, 111). "The Gowanus Houses [a housing project in Brooklyn and neighbor to her first church-plant, St. Lydia's ] seem like an impenetrable fortress... I’ve made sheepish phone calls to the Gowanus Houses Residents’ Council and left messages, but never heard back" (116).

Most of this book finds Pastor Emily calmly spelling out how she gave her all, starting this little dinner church in Brooklyn, and how often - for her - she feared that her "all" wouldn't be enough. She's always stretched between one situation and the next, one relationship or another, ever dependent on others to do things she can't, bouncing between anxieties and insecurities, and talks about all these things with complete naturalness and humility. And that's when I started to understand thing that makes her story so valuable, so precious, and why I felt so awkward when I first started reading.

In most spiritual memoirs, as I've read in the past and as I'd expected from Scott's as well, the crafting of each chapter and verse invariably turns the author into a kind of protagonist, a hero, doing their best to share with us the precious distillations of insight from their triumphs and failures. Pastor Emily doesn't do that here, though. She does no such sculpting, no such distillation, none.

And not once in the book does she ever present herself as a hero, not even of her own story. And that awkwardness that I felt reading the first pages of her memoir wasn't really awkwardness, rather an honesty with her own brokenness that is rarely expressed so openly by religious leaders, even less so in print.

Her book is the humble story of how she heard Jesus say to her “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” and left her previous life and followed him (Matt 4:19-20) - giving us the good news and the bad news in equal measure. There are no luminous epiphanies, no hard-won flashes of insight, no succession of challenges overcome - only the vivid story of a how she and the people of St. Lydia's learned that with God "that there is never enough, but always enough" (83). From this, then, the both her life and the lives of her colleagues give solid testimony to how God provided them "all sufficiency in all things at all times" so that they could "abound in every good work" for the sake of their neighbor (1 Cor. 9:8).

And more than any other book of its kind that I've read, Pastor Scott demonstrates in living color what it means to minister from one's own brokenness - to be honest with your limitations, even you sinfulness, in such a way that it becomes impossible to forget how much you need others, and in turn how much they need you.

There is so much more I can gush about with For All Who Hunger, so honest and true and vulnerable it is, but let me end quickly on why I personally think you need to read it (and pre-order it). 

I want people to read this book because it is a tangible example of how God works with everyone who hears the call and follows. After all, she started St. Lydia's as "some young, unordained woman who [thought] she could start a church" and then did it (43). Can you imagine what motivation this could give to lay leaders? On that note, aspiring church planters would do well to read this book too - especially because she demonstrates a fact so often neglected among church leadership and in seminary, that the vast majority of Churches in Lutheran history were founded by groups of dedicated laity, not pastors. And though she had advanced theological training, the book demonstrates that this is never the magic ingredient that forms a church - rather it is a sincere desire to share the love of God through food, good company, and taking care of mutual need. Pastor Emily story models this process so richly and explicitly that it is easy for those similarly moved to follow, to emulate.

And too, yes, people need to read this book because it is a truly heart-rending/warming read of, as Pastor Emily followed the call of the Spirit, how God will knit others to her and for her before she even met them - and how God will do that for all of us as well, providing healing, wisdom, love and belonging whenever and however it is needed. And in these days of fear and COVID-19, as the souls of our nation, communities, and our very beings struggle under every conceivable lack and longing, this book can give us firm reminder that God's abundance is never so far away - giving us just enough strength and hope to keep going another day and another day and another day.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Healing and Learning with Emmy Kegler's "One Coin Found"

Like all the best spiritual memoirs, Rev. Emmy Kegler’s debut book One Coin Found: How God’s Love Stretches to the Margins is a marvelous chain of moving personal stories and what they have taught her about God. There is much to comment on, but as a teacher - someone deeply concerned about how study can complement Christian devotion as to make us more powerful believers and attentive leaders - I found this book particularly wonderful because there are so many ‘class-settings’ where it could potentially be put to use. For example:

If you are leading a seminar for anyone concerned about LGBTQAI+ youth – or a retreat for queer youth themselves: This book should be given to every registered attendee.  Pastor Emmy shares touching and relatable anecdotes, like how she got caught “writing anonymous love notes... four-line rhyming poems to every girl in class... slipping them into their desks when we left for gym” (30). Anecdotes like this are excellent sparks for meaningful and transformative group discussion and will likely inspire people to share and open up (30).

She also clearly and cleanly talks about how, “coming of age in the era of Westboro Baptist’s rise to fame... the year after Matthew Shepard died,” having a firm grounding in the faith allowed her to see “parallels between the blind guides and hypocrites Jesus condemned” and Westboro-types, all while never losing sight of the fact that God loved her no matter what these same folks screeched (29).

Especially notable is when Kegler writes about when her relationship to a conservative Christian youth group and her sexuality finally reach a breaking point her senior year in high school. To the refrain of “I did not yet know...” she launches into an almost point-by-point discourse on queer sexuality and Scripture, as if casting a life-line into the past for her younger self:

I did not yet know that the six-day creation we were required to believe in was really seven days... I did not yet know that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not a story of consensual gay relationships but violent gang rape against outsiders... I did not yet know that Leviticus is largely ignored by the Christian church except when it is convenient. (57, 58, 60)

I could go on and on about this aspect of One Coin Found, but suffice it to say if you work with queer youth this needs to be a reference text. And if you are a queer youth? Get a copy. I promise it will help you.

Another way this book can be put to use is if you are looking for ways to show seminarians or lay education students how to make good theology. The lessons are everywhere. For instance, towards the end of the book Pastor Emmy makes a rather piquant comment about Al-Anon – the much-loved support group for the friends and family of alcoholics – saying how Al-Anon and Scripture are both “a series of miracles tucked into stories... where we witness each other’s brokenness and share in a hope for transformation” (167).

Isn’t that a pretty no-nonsense description of how to make good theology – finding the miracles tucked in stories? Or maybe even looking at a story from one’s life or the Bible “like [a] balloon animal,” turning it one way so “it looks like a butterfly” and yet another way so that “it looks like a bee” (12 – Kegler was only three years old when she made that metaphor by the way)?

Likewise, at the book’s end she even spells out her precise sources  – including a six-page list of books organized by their corresponding chapters (191-196) followed by 12 pages of Scripture references (197-209). But in the way she presents them in the book, I see less someone trying to back up their own claims and more a sincere invitation to explore - maybe even challenge - her own conclusions.

Between her own stories and the Scripture references and the list of books, my educator’s eyes see a rather unassuming yet comprehensive how-to guide for anyone learning how to better articulate the intricacies of their faith and passions for the sake of others. It models for them how to be clearer communicators, more inspiring readers  and thinkers, as well as craft more healing and empowering text and speech.

And as myself, someone who needs the words and thoughts of others to help complete me in ways wholly unknown to me, Kegler’s book fulfills that need. So often annoyed by theologians too-enamored of their own stories, I love how Pastor Emmy both recognizes other stories and acknowledges how they expose the limits of her own. For instance, when reflecting on her personal pain as a young queer woman, she doesn’t hesitate to remind us how “as a white lesbian [she still] had a good chance of not dying”  of AIDS nor being killed like “gay men and trans people,” and as such had some privilege (36). These poignant self-checks, scattered throughout the book, say something for her integrity. So often frustrated with the flippant way Christians treat love, I sighed in relief when I read her admit “I know, too, that love does not heal all wounds. It may bear and endure all things, but it does not heal them” (160).

Even just a few days ago, as I celebrated the martyrdom of the most blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero, her comment about Biblical truth-telling provided a marvelous counter-melody: “What if every church suddenly facing the racism or queerphobia or sexual assault within their walls cleared the altar and opened the pulpit for every victim and survivor to stand up and say: Here is what was done to me(168).

 Yes, pastor – I have said to myself many times while wading through Kegler’s words – Yes, pastor. It is so. And the weight of Christian leadership shifts ever-so-slightly – making it easier for me to breathe and walk and sing – to feel delight in my call and see love in the world.


Monday, December 17, 2018

What Your Help Means, and Means to Me...

"Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken." - Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

So as many of you know, from now until the end of January I will approaching folks via social media to look for 200 people to give me small, monthly donations of about $5-$10 to supplement my income while I finish my PhD work. It is going to take a fair amount of work to accomplish, but it is an effort I am happy to undertake. 2018 was very difficult for my studies in large part because I had to piece together income from disparate jobs in order to pay bills. The impact this had on my studies was devastating as it cut deeply into my ability to read and focus, so as we enter 2019 I know that if I am going to finish my studies quickly and effectively I cannot let this happen again.

Especially because the subject of my PhD research - the overlap between intersectionality and evangelism - will require a great deal of travel and time because have to collect hard data on the subject from multiple Christian communities (largely ELCA) all across the country. The need for this work was made beautifully clear in April in this year when, as part of my work for #decolonizeLutheranism, I coordinated a weekend-training that was likely one of the blackest, brownest, queerest, gatherings in the ELCA (to read the full story, click here)

some examples of intersectionality

What will your contribution enable me to do? Some examples...

1. Eat.
2. Pay rent.
3. Pay bills.
4. Pay tuition fees.
5. Dental work.
6. Pay for expenses related to dissertation research.
8. etc...

However, what I haven't talked about yet is the full scope of the project - and I'm kind of excited about it because those that help me out will be playing a much bigger role than just accomplish the above.

By contributing to this work, you will also be accompanying me through the reading, studying, reflecting and writing of my dissertation. Just as a three-fold cord isn't easily broken, for those of you who contribute to this fundraiser, I will be leaning on you to give me accountability as I make my way through to the completion of my dissertation. 


1. Contributors who, monthly, give $10 or more will be part of a secret Facebook group for the duration of my work. we can share our thoughts and ideas in relation to the two central concepts of my dissertation research - intersectionality and evangelism. More specifically, my hope is that during this time together I will be able to get hard data on what it means to 'be' an intersectional Christian community, something which has yet to be studied systematically.

2. Also, the group will receive regular updates about how my research is going, and you can both encourage and chide me as the mood requires. The group of supporters that I have now has been vital in reminding me of my responsibility to the church, and in addition to support, their ideas and feedback have been life-giving for me.

3. I will also be opening up a special page on my website where you can access exclusive content - like notes from my reading and even early drafts of essays and such. I'm hoping it will be fun to share my book notes with all of you, giving everyone the ability to download and read and reflect upon them and see if they inspire anything in you. 

What's more, I hope that every month or two I can open up internal discussion in the group about the work itself. This I am quite excited about as I love the interplay of minds and ideas. So being able to chat about what it is I'm working on with all of you gives me great delight, because not only will you help me to more thoroughly internalize my reading, our conversations will also likely Inspire what I write. Kind of cool, isn't it?

4. Availability and permission permitting, occasionally I will also have Facebook live conversations with people connected with my research. Sometimes it will be pastors or lay leaders that I will be interviewing. Other times it might be one of my dissertation readers. Either way, it's bound to be interesting.

5. All contributors will also receive a special collection of mystical/erotic Christian devotional music that I've been writing. As creative self-care, once all the songs are written (only two left!) my hope is to work with some friends to have a brief concert of this sometime in the spring that will be recorded and used as the basis for a series of YouTube videos as well as a CD to accompany the printed music.

And as my economic support, all of you will be receiving a copy of this for free.

6. There will be surprises too! For instance, if my travels take me near enough of you, I'll do something really crazy like find a house to set up and cook dinner for everyone that can come. Or maybe I'll set up shop at a happy hours somewhere and invite people over for a round of spirits and discussion - whatever. Just so long as we can share each others' company and I can actually find a way to show you how much I appreciate you.

However in addition to random events like this, there are also 2 special projects coming up in the next 3 months that will not be announced, likely, until next fall. However, as soon as they start to take shape - and you all swear yourselves to secrecy - I'll let you in on what kinds of schemes the Holy Spirit is prodding me to do, and give you regular updates as to how these projects progress.

And to take part in this, all you have to do is send me an email at letting me know if you want to give a gift of about $5 a month or  $10 a month (lump sums and larger monthly contributions will also be happily accepted!).  Once I get your name and contact information, then my lovely wife Sanja - who is virtuosic when it comes to administrative work - will be in touch with you soon to let you know the next steps.

Because I need your help to finish this. I'm not good at self-regulation when I do it by myself, but when working with a team and having regular interaction with folks I always have a much better chance of staying focused.

So thanks for reading, and if you have any additional questions find me on Facebook here or email me here!

pax Christi

Monday, January 11, 2016

Can the ELCA be Multicultural? I'm Glad You Asked...

I always chuckle a little bit whenever someone asks me the question - often with furrowed-brow and misplaced intensity: "Can the ELCA be multicultural?" It's a tough answer. Internal estimates place the whiteness of our denomination at almost 95%.

Pew Research results of diversity among
US religious groups.The ELCA
is second from the bottom.
Click for larger.
This summer's sobering PEW research study of ethnic diversity in US religious communities had us at 96% white, making us the whitest church in the United States despite decades of trying to be otherwise. So sure, there is cause for worry, but having been in the vanguard of this very discussion for some time now, I always sport a sly grin whenever this topic pops up - because there is some little-known good news that invariablly twists the corners of my mouth a jaunty angle.

The ELCA already is multicultural.

It's true. Firstly, I know this because since beginning Th.M./Ph.D. studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in 2013 virtually all of my guides and mentors have been people of color. My advisor is from India, my "step advisor" is Puerto Rican, and my mentor-of-mentors is African American with roots in Jamaica.

2015 Glocal Musician Training Participants

What's more, if you have two free days to attend the ELCA's  Glocal Musician Training in Chicago, you will marvel - with it's more than 20 ethnic groups and languages singing and crying and laughing together - at the broad range of voices and harmonies and dissonances that echo under our church's little roof. Don't believe me? Watch this video of last year's training - and if you don't blink you might even witness the author shaking maracas and playing his viola!

Click to enlarge.
But even more encouragingly, did you also know that of the 512 churches and synodically authorized worship communities that have joined the ELCA since 1988, 365 of them are either from communities of color or are racially mixed? In short, in our denomination's short history 68% of all new growth is ethnically diverse while only 32% of it is exclusively white. Though most ELCA communities may have resisted the ever diversifying reality of the US, the new mission starts haven't. For whatever reasons, ethnic diversity is in their ecclesial DNA from the get-go and it clearly shows. So while we may now be 95% white, the future of the ELCA is unquestionably multicultural and these statistics prove it. So when I say that that ELCA is already multicultural, this is why. And it's pretty great.

But now for the bad news -
the hard and depressing news:

Those making the diversity in the ELCA possible have paid a VERY high price.

To illustrate this, and I ask this of our white readers, read the following paragraph and ask yourself how you could do ministry under these conditions:

Is it possible to continue respecting a colleague after she says that you're not "a real Latino" let alone "a real Lutheran"?  How would you feel about your church after your first time through Candidacy was marred by racism - and then later hear that a friend had experienced the exact same treatment by the exact same committee 10 years later? If a white bishop asks you for help placing more first-call pastors of color and then doesn't follow through on any of his commitments, when he asks you for help a second time do you give it? 

How do you continue to worship with your community after you learn that your black husband was never paid for his musicianship while the white musicians were? How long do you marinate in student debt and despair while awaiting a first call - one year, two years, three or four...? - after watching most of your white fellow-graduates sign their first contracts within 6 months, and everyone else within one year?

And after years of being mobbed by white colleagues every time you try to speak honestly about how you've been racially profiled or marginalized and demeaned, do you stay in your denomination and keep being abused or do you jump ship and potentially destroy your entire career and the security of your family and future?

For months I have listened to these stories from ELCA leaders of color of every sort from nearly all nine of the ELCA's regions - and for all their permutations there is one thing that unites every one:  regular harassment from white colleagues is as much a part of their jobs as Bible studies or coffee dates.

Discimination is the norm and most have chosen to be silent about their pain.

But since the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston a dam has burst for many people of color in the ELCA. Since not only were victims Senior Pastor Clementa Pinckney and Associate Pastor Daniel Simmons both graduates of the ELCA's Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, but even shooter Dylann Roof himself is baptized and confirmed ELCA...

Mother Emanuel was the last straw.

So now leaders of color are starting to break that silence. Tiffany Chaney, a bi-vocational Pastor Developer in Montgomery, Alabama shared powerful testimony of how the hardest thing she has ever done in life is to be "both black and Lutheran.".  I myself wrote an essay relating the trials of people of color in the ELCA to Luther's theology of the cross. And then there is the ELCA's Program Director for Young Adult Ministry, Rozella Haydée White, and her harrowing experiences after admitting the burdens of her racial estrangement before an audience of white ELCA pastors.

We may be few, but over time more and more voices will come forward and I know that our concerns will not be denied or easily mollified.  For the ELCA's progress on diversity may have firm root, but if our denomination truly wishes to continue expanding ministries among communities of color it must also work to bring justice and healing to the thousands of people of color in our denomination who have suffered much from working in such a white church.

So what next?

For starters, raise a mic to the voices of color in the ELCA that have so often been marginalized and to allow us to boldly lament for what we have been through.  I specifically use the term "lament" here. As I have suggested elsewhere, when people of color speak directly of their pain, instead of receiving sympathy and understanding, often times others treat our experiences as fodder for a discussion, a debate -  turning even the most respected and sympathetic colleague or friend from a Christian to a Job's comforter. 

And the metaphor sticks.

Job had everything taken away from him - daughters, sons, livestock, servants,  health - and had the right to rage. But almost as soon as he opens his mouth the silencing begins: "If one ventures a word with you, will you be impatient...?" and it all goes down-hill from there (Job 4: 2). Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar's supposedly comforting words did nothing of the sort, but rather inflamed Job's anger and shame, further compounding his misery and pushing him even farther away from healing. 

Similarly, this is how it feels when people of color speak openly of our racial harassment and white people immediately silence us, tell us to calm down.

Yet if sympathetic but unsure white leaders and parishioners rather understood our testimonies as lamentations, they would then be less likely to query or interrogate our stories and more likely give us the space to vent and grieve and give grievance - space that we are almost always denied and so desperately need.

It is basic pastoral care, basic friendship, basic Christian love - Just let us talk.

And now, as for how the church can ensure our lament makes a difference:

 1.    Have Church-Wide leadership initiate a survey of people of color and racial harassment, asking them if they've ever made an official grievance due to racism - then asking what happened if they had, and why they chose to stay silent if they hadn't. Record the data and report back. It could even be announced at the end of another webcast.

2.    For that matter, have a "Conversation on Race" that focuses specifically on the racism that people of color have dealt with in our own church and use the conversation to expose the 95% white majority of the ELCA to the realities that we people of color face every day. 

3.    Deeper yet, as we did a massive study on sexuality, do a similar study on race relations within the ELCA. It is wonderful that the leadership on Higgins Road has condemned the world's racism so boldly and unambiguously - but now we need to turn the lens inward and clean up our own house. Having these hard conversations in every synod and every parish brave enough to do so would go a long way in acknowledging the trials of Black and Brown church leaders and give them just that much more acknowledgment and power as they continue in their ministries. And as for parishes and synods that don't want to ask these questions, ask them why.

4. And even more boldly - have a church-wide webcast service of lamentation. Have the deacons, administrators, pastors, bishops and lay-leaders and everyone else of color who has felt the sting of racism in the our church - have them all come forward to lay their burdens down, raise their lament before God and community and let the shock of the Holy Spirit rock the ELCA to its core.

And after we lament? We will show you how we PRAISE and SHOUT!

May it be so.

Closing thoughts...

There is much to be happy about, even in addition to the good news I mentioned in the beginning of this article. In direct response to last summer's Pew Study The February issue of the Lutheran is going to have a feature on multicultural congregations in the ELCA. Following-up their  "Confronting Racism" conversation in the summer, just last-night Bishop Eaton and ELCA Church Council member William B. Horne II had another such chat. "Confronting Racism: A Holy Yearning" focusing on racism and the US criminal justice system, but the conversation hit many of the subjects mentioned in this blog - the highlight for me being when Bishop Eaton dropped this doozy:

"Pastors, it's hard for you to have these conversations because people will react... Blame it on me!"

I can personally speak some good things about our synod here in Chicago as well - as all of the African-American graduates of the MDiv program at LSTC in recent years now are following calls in this synod. 

There is cause for rejoicing.

And never forget - we may have had and are having a hard time in the work we do but we are not going anywhere. We may lament but, like Job, we keep speaking-up and persevering. And most importantly? We know that we our called to this church and we love our work. We accept and embrace the challenges because we know that if we remain silent in "such a time as this" when so many in our communities are perishing (Esther 4: 14) then we would be in total denial of our call and the love and power that the Gospel has given us - and we cannot do that.

The question then, my beloved white brothers and sisters, is this:

As we raise our voices to God, will you also answer our call - our lament – for justice? Will you come with us, weep with us, at the the cross?

 Will you weep and shout and sing with us at the feet of our Lord? 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Standing Accused of Glory: The Heidelberg Disputation and Racism in the ELCA

The Problem:
As the US reeled from yet another eruption of racist violence, the summer’s usually fleet flow slowed to a leaden crawl after Charleston. And as the darkest truth came to light – that not only had two of the nine victims been alumni of the ELCA’s Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (Mother Emanuel's Senior Pastor Rev. Clementa Pinckney and Associate Pastor Rev. Daniel Simmons) but that even the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, was an ELCA member – that already heavy burden began burning to the touch. Bishop Eaton's pastoral epistle, released the day after the attacks, gave a sobering summation of the feelings of many in the ELCA: “All of a sudden and for all of us this is an intensely personal tragedy. One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.”

The Response:
But as the white leaders of our overwhelmingly white denomination (nearly 94.8% by ELCA internal estimates, 96% according to the recent Pew study) struggled with how to react, there came a still, small blog post guiding the way - not so much through its courage or vehemence, but rather by its damning exposé of the trials of one person of color in the ELCA. At the heart of the post the blogger, Rozella Haydée White - Program Director of Young Adult Ministry at the ELCA's Church-Wide offices in Chicago - details a series of jarring personal realizations sandwiched between the Mother Emanuel massacre and an important public appearance:

I have bgeen claiming a church as my own that’s not actually my church. My cultural practices and ways of being are not seen as authentically “Lutheran.” I have been defending a church that has never repented of the systemic racism that is present within. I have been leading within a church that is blind to its own white privilege and the ways that white supremacy work… I am a part of a church that raises racist white people who then kill people of color who are educated in our institutions.

Sadly, participating in the aforementioned church event only increased her burden:

During the opening worship of this event, I waited desperately to hear a word of lament; to share in communal grieving; to experience a moment of collective acknowledgement for what was going on in the world around us. I felt like the ground that I walk on had fundamentally shifted and that everyone around me was proceeding with business as usual.

Unable to bear the silence, she posted her feelings on social media, mourning how the worship “went on without a mention, a moment of silence, a word" to the victims of Mother Emanuel. And then the next day, shaken by backlash from the previous night's post yet undaunted, she then revealed the full force of her sorrow before all attending, saying: “I felt the night before and shared that I felt like, for the first time, this church wasn’t my church.” In response, some of the good Christians assembled said they felt “personally attacked by [her] statements,” that her confession would “start the race war” that Roof had tried and failed to do, all while coldly questioning her credibility as “a public leader.” 

It was too much. An African-American boldly broke the silence of her marginalization and as so often happens to people of color in our church, her words were deemed “inappropriate” and even placed on-par in wickedness with Roof’s multiple murders. So despite the intensity, depth, and power of Rozella’s African heritage and Lutheran witness there are still far too many members of this church who see her testimony as little more than inconvenient dissent, an inconvenient dissent which they could and would follow-upon with attacks to her character and thinly-veiled threats to her career.

Rozella Haydée White

But we black and brown folk in the ELCA have a defender, oh yes yes yes.


A Response to the Response:
Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits Thesis 4 of Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, the words came back to me in a flash and I returned again to vol. 31 of Luther’s works (page 44) to get the full picture: “In this way, consequently, the unattractive works which God does in us, that is, those which are humble and devout, are really eternal, for humility and fear of God are our entire merit.” Ms. White spoke of her pain to white colleagues well-knowing that, to them, her words would be unattractive and evil, but the Spirit called her saying “Hier stehe ich” - Here I stand - and she stood.

Going further on to Thesis 8: So much more are the works of man mortal sins when they are done without fear in unadulterated, evil self-security. And further still, “The inevitable deduction from the preceding thesis is clear. For where there is no fear there is no humility. Where there is no humility there is pride, and where there is pride there are the wrath and judgment of God for God opposes the haughty” (Luther: 47). 

There he is, Mad Brother Martin, huffing and puffing, rolling up his sleeves across nearly five centuries, getting ready to pound some popery, some white supremacy - his target the “unadulterated, evil self-security” (yes he said evil, dear people) of those who think themselves so above racism that they have the temerity to equate truth from an African-American woman to the heinous murders of a 21-year-old wanna-be Cecil Rhodes.

Then, at last, we come to the center of Luther’s argument - Thesis 21: The theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. The theologian of the cross calls things by their true names (Luther: 53).

Here Brother Martin most tersely and unambiguously states his main point. If you "comprehend the visible and manifest things of God... through suffering and the cross," and then fiercely declare such to all who can hear, this makes you a theologian of the cross (Luther: 52). This is precisely what Rozella Haydée White so bravely demonstrated back in June - speaking boldly of the cross that years among white colleagues had forced her to carry, but a cross whose love is so great that it gives her constant strength and healing. It is a cross so great and powerful that just a few weeks later, during the ELCA Youth Gathering, she would heal enough from the abuse to stand before a 30,000 fellow Lutherans and boldly claim "This church is my church."

Rozella speaking during the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit.

In contrast to this are theologians of glory. This is how Luther names those who prefer “works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and in general good to evil” (Luther: 53). Since they are taken with "human works" that are "attractive outwardly" (such as church institutions and careers, political reputation, etc...) they consequently “hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works... call[ing] the good of the cross evil and evil of a deed good" (Luther: 53).

Overloaded with white privilege and loathe to part with any of it, this succinctly describes all those who heard Rozella call racism in the church by it's true name and immediately acted to silence it. Though only speaking for herself, her testimony of racial harassment struck many in the room. And instead of examining their discomfort or maybe giving her a warm hug to ease her mourning, many desperately tried to shore up their own denial of their power and privilege by lashing out.

Silencing Voices of Color 
and the Theology of Glory:
Though written nearly 500 years ago, the Heidelberg Disputation has direct application to the ever-open wound that is racism in the ELCA. It’s already nightmare enough that people of color in the US must show constant vigilance to avoid racist attacks in the world-at-large, but it is a grievous sin and evil that these same fears are regularly magnified within the walls of our own churches, transforming our denomination’s many promises and declarations of justice and reconciliation into filthy hypocrisies. And since so many of us people of color within the ELCA are wholly frustrated with the slow pace of change, the Holy Spirit convicts me to come before you all with words of terrible judgment. I am reluctant to do so, to be sure, but it is all that I can do to truly fulfill my role as a member of this church and to honor the fire of love that the Lord has put within me.

I must call this thing by its true name.


Whenever people of color in the ELCA stand-up and give gut-wrenching testimony to the pain and isolation we have faced - knowing full-well that our candor and our vulnerability may cost us our jobs and our peace and the security of our families - we are theologians of the cross.

How could it be anything else? Friends and colleagues questioning our credibility, undermining our work, casting seeds of doubt and suspicion without even knowing us - this is the true cross that so many of us carry from day to day. We are theologians of the cross not just because we're Lutheran and have read the books, but because we actually live the cross EVERY day. And knowing well this God that is "hidden in suffering," knowing that this call and this power accompanies our every step, we follow and will continue to follow wherever it takes us.

Such is our love of the Gospel.

Such is our love even of the ELCA.

Likewise if you try to minimize our stories when we speak of parishioner harassment, of pastors who discount our voices in meetings and accuse us of being too "emotional" or "aggressive," of professors or administrators or committees insist on hearing "all sides of the story" before they will even consider listening to our pain - well, my most beloved friends in Christ, you are theologians of glory.

Paraphrasing Luther, denying our testimony means that you prefer the glory of church politics and human comfort to the humility of the Crucified – and by doing so reveal yourselves to be enemies of the cross. And yes, these are hard words, harsh words of judgment - but in my desire to do a truly new thing I am throwing this terse pronouncement into the conversation happening within our church - and I'll do anything I can to keep the fire hot, anything to prevent another Dylann Roof from being nurtured within our walls.

So where do white allies go from here? Three things:
First: Listen to us. When people of color speak of the hardships they suffer in the ELCA they do so knowing full well that what they share may well be held against them. The only thing that makes such disclosure worth it is if the one receiving our confession actually listens to us instead of trying to censor, correct, or deny our words. The relief and grace we experience when this happens is precious.

Second: Believe us. We don't do this for fun. So please, recognize the holiness of these moments and accept what we say as true. Don't pepper us with clarifying questions that sour the balm that we seek, nor demand that we re-tell and re-traumatize ourselves in order to "prove" our case. These disclosures are a confession, a lament - not a discussion. Please treat it as such.

Third: Follow us. Sometimes it'll be just by giving a sympathetic ear, other times making a phone-call to a supervisor, maybe giving bit of personal testimony and your own skin on our behalf, or during crucial times simply being quiet and following our lead as we make a stand. Whatever it is you do, your willingness to help us shoulder a bit of racism’s impossible weight will give us just that much more grace and support and we will appreciate it.

During the ELCA’s “Confronting Racism” webcast/conversation with William B. Horne II, Bishop Eaton was keen to remind everyone of Luther's theology of the cross: “We are also a theology-of-the-cross people in a culture that is just suffused with glory.” As followers of Jesus it is part of our call to “point to all the places in the world where there is brokenness" as "the place where the cross is planted. And if that’s where the cross is, that’s where we need to be also.”

The racism in our church is such a cross, and the ELCA's connection to Charleston has made it clear we that can no longer avoid it.

And yes, my white friends, taking our stories to heart, pushing for change in your own communities, even standing up and accusing those who malign and abuse people of color - yes, these things will be difficult for you too, but by doing so you will help us carry some of the darkness that ceaselessly burdens and burns our backs and that so often we must carry alone. So in the coming days as more and more of us start coming forward, listen to, believe, and follow us as we praise and weep and praise God on our way to the cross. The Risen Christ is waiting for us there, let us not delay.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

To Be Read Out-LOUD or Good Things Come in Three's

Question: How do you talk about Jesus' crucifixion at an open mic show with spiritual-but-not-religious types, many of whom have been badly burned by Christians and the church?

Answer: It's a trick question.
You don't talk about it...
You embody it.


The idea first occurred to me during the winter of 2008 after I had completed 3 weeks at LSTC immersed in Prof. David Rhoads and his Biblical Performance Criticism seminar, "Scripture by Heart." By three weeks from class-end I had Mark 1 neatly stored in my brain - every wilderness-shouting, Holy-Spirit descending, demon-screaming juicy drop of it - before heaving it out before the crowd at the In-One-Ear Open Mic in Roger's Park one deep midwinter Wednesday. As the years flowed on I would perform most of the material from Mark 1 - 13, inspiring many conversations and confessions along the way, but I always stopped short of the Passion.

Rev. Dr. David Rhoads whose book.
Mark as Story, guided my study.

Cuz THAT story couldn't be served 
one pericope at a time...

...and doing it justice would require a block of 20-30 minutes - hence being made the evening's "feature performer." Between work, seminary, my fiancee and 20 billion other things it wasn't doable so I had to let it slide 'till it was time.

Then one day in June/July of 2013 that time came around and the Holy Spirit hit me hard during a late-night stroll - bellowing in an insistent tenor like my old preaching prof:

"Do it. Do.. IT! You know you must. I'll handle the rest. Be bold and fear not." 

So there it was, the call... again. 
No more waiting. 
No more denial. 

No excuses.

Then came the hesitations and apprehensions - or rather came back. For, truth be told, there was another reason why I kept Christ's Passion at bay. I did learn it once, all the way back in the Summer of 2008, five years previous to be precise. But despite my ease with the other chapters whenever I approached how to 'do' Jesus's final, desperate days my imagination froze - became colder and harder with each line taken to heart, each time I struggled to sculpt the movement and delivery.

Graham Taylor Chapel
Frustrated and slightly desperate I made a final, earnest attempt to break the chill that Fall semester. Quietly shielded by the neo-gothic stylings of Chicago Theological Seminary's Graham Taylor Chapel, I had a long palaver with my theological mentor - Associate Professor of Ethics, Theology and the Arts JoAnne Marie Terrell - to flesh out some ideas in the hopes of tackling that most horrid of days but we couldn't touch it. The immensity of that bloody, evil execution overwhelmed us and we did little more than sit and share our feelings and convictions sotto voce while holding back tears and five years later all those feelings came back... one.

Rev. Dr. JoAnne Marie Terrell
For you see these folks at the In-One-Ear, these friends - the live-reactor and soul of so much of my theology - though they all knew, knew how much I loved Jesus I couldn't help but ask myself:

Would they get the crucifixion? 

Could they handle it? 

They tended to be critical of Christians - living through livid litanies of abuse from Jesus-Lovers tends to do that - so what's to say that this wouldn't be a last straw of sorts? A final line-crossing after which they would forever lump me into the few, the proud, the Pharisita-hypocritical against whom Jesus so regularly railed? How could I do this? Could I do this? Would it dredge up old monsters? Would they tell me I had finally gone too far?

Do it. Do... IT. You must. I'll handle the rest. Be bold and fear not.

So I thought, prayed, wrestled with how begin a story like this - how to get a crowd "in the mood" to watch the arrest and public killing of a man. It wasn't fun and the old fears and doubts remained. Then one hap-hap-happy day it came to me in a flash, or rather a water-logged splash and a breath, while doing my daily laps at the local gym:

"Were you theeeeeeeere when they crucifiiieeed may Looooooooooord
[Were you there]?" 

I would start with a song, one almost as old as the US of A itself, that sang the truth of this country's founding pain. 

And the whole evening began to map itself out in my mind,  punctuated by splashes and soggy inhalations as I started my forward-crawl reps.

"OooOOOOOOOOH... [splash!] ...ooooooh-OOOOH! [splash!] Sooooometiiimes... [splash!] caaaau... [splash!] me, to tremble...[splash!]"

I would start the Passion moseying in and singing - even sing other verses later to give those assembled time to breathe, reflect, to punctuate the darker moments. And that's all it took. 

A chlorinated baptism. Hallelujah. I had my beginning. The ice had cracked and the Spirit coursed anew - helped me piece together what to do, how to stand, how to move. Praise be to God.
Praise be!

Revelation No. 1 and there was more to come 
for all good things come in three's.

Then next I prepared. And prepared. And prepared and re-memorized, self-produced mp3's of the text forever in my ears as I resurrected what I'd begotten then buried years before - and yes, most of the words were still there - they'd been fresh-frozen after-all. To keep the text and my heart warm and flowing I recited wherever and before whomever I could, eventually creating a internal contest to seek the most non-sequitur situations where I could recite the thing - under my breath on the slow seminary elevator rides a standard fave - until recall weren't no problem at all.

But then I came to my final hurdle - 
the Last Supper.

And here is when it got tricky, or rather - to be honest - subversive. 

Being Lutheran and all, my heart beats loud and proud for the Real Presence and I couldn't help but see the performance as a chance to sneak a little bit of Jesus into the audience. Interactive and meaningful - sharing (consecrated) bread and wine with the attendees would a perfect cross-over point between me and all assembled but again imagination failed to give me a 'how.' Should I say something before hand - inviting people to pass the plate and the cup along if they didn't want to take part - or should I just run the thing down and stay mum and watch what happened?

Rev. Dr. Benjamin Stewart
LSTC Professor of Worship Ben Stewart helped me out here. His advice was simple - don't look at it as the Eucharist, an entirely different beast with readings, processions and bells and smells. "This is more like performance art," he said, "so just tell everyone one: 'Hey, later on we're gonna pass around some bread and some wine and please feel free to share' and leave it at that."

- Revelation No. 2 -

And when a generous member of my home church surprised me with some of his surplus grace by making me a wooden cup and paten based on crude napkin scribbles I had everything I needed.

(Thanks Earl :..)

Then the day came - 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014.

My buddy Stan agreed to be an audience for my dress-run so that morning I ran the whole thing down in his living room to work out kinks and get feed-back. And it went okay, but I realized something a bit shocking.

News flash...

We may like communion and may make it the high point of every Sunday meeting but that morning it suddenly seemed very small. Important? Yes. Moving? Yes. But not central. 

It's really just a three-verse highlight 
to a tense dinner 
soon crashed by swords and clubs. 

And at the actual performance I almost breezed through it - felt myself trying to hold on to the moment, that moment that Jesus shared with his disciples and I'd hope to share with those who'd paid the $3 cover. No - the power didn't lay there. And from verse 14:27 all the way to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome running out of the tomb in terror and amazement - in some little place in my mind I laughed at myself.

Because the audience was riveted.


For it's right after the Last Supper that it all hits the fan. The prayers in anguish, the arrest, the interrogation, and all of us assembled were with there - yes, WE. WERE. THERE. We ogled, winced, shook our heads, some even cried.

Had I been afraid that being in-your-face Jesus-y might turn them off - that the crucifixion would be a deal-breaker? 


Was I right to be? 


Crucifixion was communion that night. 

Jesus' arrest and interrogation, and the way that every blessed one of us were wholly wrapped-up in the story of the end of the life of this man called Jesus. The Holy Spirit, as she had promised me months before and has delivered over and over again through the centuries, brought communion to the masses through the honest and brutal testimony of Jesus' death. I could tell by their eyes and obvious attention, that the story had gripped them.

And if they had never seen or ever picked up a Bible ever again in their lives they would likely never forget that night, the night that some crazy, loud, naive seminarian threw himself at their mercy for 30 minutes so that he might share the story of the One he loved so much. 

Glory be. Revelation No. 3. 

Needless to say, when I surveyed the paten and the cup before packing-up 
every morsel and drop was gone.

I went home happy and fed.