Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Prayer from a Roadside Ditch

based on Luke 10:25-37

Faithful God, we approach this time of prayer seeking help from you, from others, from the people and sources we most trust and with which we’re most familiar. We seek help with physical ailments, with unanswered questions, with fears about the future, with emotional strength, with spiritual desolation. We seek your presence and love as we struggle, strive, and strain with those issues most pressing at our core.

In our seeking, it may be that such help may come from places and people we’d never expect, including those we don’t want it from. Sometimes, circumstances and needs transcend our preferred categories of “in” and “out,” “worthy” and “unworthy,” “lovable” and “unlovable,” and the beauty of our common beloved humanity overcomes all for the healing and comfort of our selves and others. And so we open ourselves to the possibility of who you may be sending into our need, trusting in the guidance of your Spirit.

O God, may we be humble enough not only to ask for help, but to receive it in the ways you are bringing it into our lives. Amen.

(Image source)

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Ariel, Jesus, and Going Viral

It's hard to predict what will go viral on social media.

You can type out something with careful precision, weighing every word, and have it go nowhere.

And then you can fire off a tweet early one morning without much forethought and have it shared over and over and over again.

On the morning of July 4th, I read a little about the news of Halle Bailey being cast as Ariel in Disney's upcoming live adaptation of The Little Mermaid. My general opinions and feelings about these live action movies set aside, I could appreciate their casting a young, talented actress and singer for the role regardless of her race, as well as how it would offer a fresh and different take on the story.

After all, they did it with Cinderella over 20 years ago.

Predictably, not everyone has been happy with this casting choice. And as much as some have tried to couch their opinions in wanting to be true to the source material, it's just white people being mad that Ariel will be black.

And so--again, without much forethought--I said this on Twitter:

If you've spent any time on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram since then, there's a good chance you've seen it. Clearly something (several things) about it touched a nerve. Most feedback has been positive, but of course I've received some of the other kind, most of it containing no real substance.

Of the feedback I have received, at least two issues have arisen, which makes sense because the tweet combines two issues.

The first is the casting of Ariel as black after the image of her from the 1989 cartoon being the popular one for so long. There's a little bit of traditionalism happening here, but it's mostly about race even though critics are trying to swear up and down that it isn't.

Simply put, representation matters. It leaves an impact when children finally get to see characters new or classic portrayed by someone who looks more like them. After a long line of white male superhero movies, for instance, there were reasons why Wonder Woman, Black PantherCaptain Marvel, and Miles Morales in Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse were so well-received. It's because girls and POC children finally saw someone more relatable; someone they could look up to and call their own.

If you’re seriously upset about the casting of this new adaptation, you’ll always have the 1989 movie. In the meantime, fellow white folks, consider why this new production might matter to people who don’t share our skin tone. Consider how you may celebrate this not just for them but for the expansion of your own awareness as well.

And then there's the Jesus issue. I've heard from more than one person trying to argue that Jesus really was white, he just had a really good tan due to living in that part of the world. I've had people try to establish Jesus' ethnicity according to modern categories of race including how the United States census classifies Semitic people for its data. I've had people say that they've never met a dark-skinned Jew so obviously Jesus couldn't have had dark skin.

The first issue is the easy one: Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean people don't tend to have fair skin, blue eyes, and blondish hair like all the European paintings many Americans have grown up knowing. A study conducted by anthropologist Richard Neave did its best to recreate what a 1st Century Jewish Galilean might have looked like, and the results are the picture to the right: short dark hair, brown eyes, and olive brown skin. This may have varied in the region depending on the specifics of where people lived, but Jesus wouldn't have been white.

The second issue arises when one attempts to read modern categories back onto Jesus such as what we in the U.S. consider "white" or "non-white" today. In this country, for instance, lighter-skinned people get to be white until they don't. Many Jewish and Arab people who may be classified as "white" on the Census could still share stories of times when they've faced discrimination, micro-aggression, and violence.

We can talk about whiteness as a race, but people also use it as a mechanism for holding power; for determining who's in and who isn't. It determines who benefits and who doesn't. It's used as a system whereby people think that Ariel being white is "normal" and a black actress playing her is outrageous, and white male superheroes are "normal" and Wonder Woman and Black Panther are "pandering."

And the insistence that Jesus was white is less in the interest of historical accuracy and more as a way to have an icon for that power to determine who's included and what's normal. In these cases, Jesus becomes a weapon to wield rather than the embodiment of God's love, forgiveness, and salvation meant for all people regardless of race or societal status.

Jesus broke down the walls people like to put up around people's worth, and exposed the ways people of power perpetuate that divide. If that feels threatening, it's up to the person who feels threatened to examine why, rather than try to reinforce the status quo for their own comfort.

(Little Mermaid image source, Jesus image source)

Monday, July 08, 2019

Re-Discovering Connection

One of my first days in Ormond Beach, Florida, I ventured out into the ocean, over the sandbar not too far out from shore, and into slightly deeper water.

The waves were very calm that afternoon, making for a time to bob up and down and take in the placidity of it all. I even wished that I could bottle up this calmness, as if taking the water could somehow bring its serenity with it. If I could actually do that, I could sell it and become a billionaire, and maybe even slip some into some world leaders' food, thus solving several global catastrophes at once.

But I couldn't do that, so the moment was all I had, to be revisited when those inevitable moments of un-calm present themselves.

I'm glad to say that there have been far more of the calm moments over these weeks of sabbatical than the un-calm ones. That's the point, of course. You make it a goal during times like this to rest, rejuvenate, and become newly energized, at least for your specific context of ministry but in a larger sense for your sense of self or calling or being.

I decided beforehand that the theme of my sabbatical would be Falling Back in Love With My Vocation, where I would focus on remembering why I love the work of ministry in general. I figured
that any specifics that came out of that would be a bonus, but the core focus would be a recapturing of that larger love for that aspect of my life and identity.

So, what did I do to attempt that?

  • I had discernment conversations with several close and trusted friends.
  • I read and sat in silence and walked at a local retreat house, during which I learned to listen to my body by lying on the floor in the chapel and even falling asleep on a couch.
  • I read books by Hannah Paasch, Martha Beck, and Rachel Held Evans that helped me gain greater awareness and appreciation for my self and for the church.
  • I made a pilgrimage to places in Pennsylvania and New York where some ancestors are buried, including one who served and faced trials in ministry generations before me.
  • I attended the United Church of Christ's General Synod in Milwaukee, during which I connected with friends, enjoyed Wisconsin food and drink, shared in worship and the life of the wider church, and gave myself breaks when my body told me to.
  • As mentioned, I spent a week on the beach, which I consider to be one of my spiritual places, to relax and enjoy my family.
  • Inspired by Austin Kleon, I played with different artistic and creative expressions, mainly blackout poetry and collages.
So after all of that, did I fall back in love with my vocation?

I'd say yes.

Through these activities, I remembered my connection to things within me and beyond me both human and divine. And I re-discovered that those connections, when nurtured and appreciated and used well, can make all the difference in my personal, spiritual, and vocational health.

I remembered that people have done this work before me, and people are doing this work alongside me, and I can learn from them all and rely on them when doubts and fatigue and questions creep into my mind or soul.

I remembered that I can trust myself when it comes to my ideas and abilities and also my suspicions of when I need to rest or let something go or set something down.

I remembered that I still have something to offer the church and the world, no matter the specifics, and that God isn't done with me yet when it comes to this ministry thing. It's not always easy or pleasant or affirming, but it's still my work to do, and God has called and will equip me to do it.

And when I feel otherwise, I can always come away to the quiet places and to calm waters to remember all of this all over again.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

An American Prayer

I wrote this prayer in 2005 for Memorial Day. It's based on the hymn "A Song of Peace," or "This Is My Song," depending on what tradition you're most familiar with. I think it's fitting for July 4th as well.

O God of all nations, we offer a prayer for peace both for this land and all other lands. America is our home, where we base our hopes and dreams, but we are also aware of hearts in other lands beating just as strongly for their own.

We give you thanks for blue skies, for sunlight, for the shade and green of the trees over us. We give thanks that those skies, your sunlight and shade are over people in other places as well.

This is our prayer, O God of all nations and kingdoms, that your kingdom will be realized above all others, that on earth it will be done as it is in heaven.

We pray, O God, for unity among all people, that peace might reign and begin with each of us.

We pray for those the world over who need protection from violence. We pray that we might overcome differences and work toward a new world ruled by love, and governed by hope rather than fear.

We pray this prayer of peace, O God, remembering those who died because there is not yet this peace, this love, this hope.

We pray that you would continue to transform this world into one in which another’s humanity is valued and another’s well-being is treasured.

We strive for this world and for the hope that it gives us. It is in your name we pray. Amen.

(Image source)