Redemptive Weeping and Wondrous Resurrection

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(Artwork: “Jesus Wept” by Jordan Douglas)

 

Some preachers this weekend will focus on John 11:1-45.

Check out the story. It is a stunning illumination of the heart of God.

Lazarus.

Death.

Weeping.

Jesus.

Life.

What does Jesus do when he finds out that his friend Lazarus has died? Well, to put it as simply as Scripture does, he weeps. We weeps over the sadness that death causes. He weeps over death’s unparalleled ability to silence voices and to break hearts. Jesus…weeps.

And please, do not overlook or minimize these tears. The tears matter. They reveal the nature of the Divine Heart.

Jesus, after all, is the incarnation of the God we cannot see. In him, we are told, all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. If we have a Jesus who weeps, then we must also have a God who weeps. Not a God who orchestrates misery and then watches our pain and death and cancer and quarantines from a safe emotional distance, but a God who enters with us into the depths of our suffering and who allows divine tears to commingle with ours.

That is why the tears of Jesus are so vital to our understanding of God. They saturate our deepest consciousness with the compassion of a God who takes everything we experience personally and feels it all deeply. Everything. In Jesus’ tears, we find a God who has invested so completely and so passionately in our journey that this God cannot help but internalize the joys and sorrows of our vulnerable pilgrimage. When we grieve, the heart of God grieves. When we suffer, the heart of God suffers. When we weep, the heart of God weeps.

Where is God in the face of COVID-19? God is right here, in the mess of it all. God is in the anguish of the addict who is desperate for community in a time of social distancing. God is in the despair of the grieving widow who cannot experience the physical embrace of loved ones in her loss. God is in the fear and dread of those vulnerable souls who have grown weak and weary with a sense of isolation.

Where is God? God is right here. Closer to us than our own breathing, more intimately connected to us than our own thoughts. That is who God is—a vulnerable, scandalously-intimate, deeply-feeling Parent who does not cause our suffering but who enters it, embraces it, and weeps over it.

But the weeping is not the end of the story. It never is with Jesus.

“Lazarus, come out,” Jesus shouts. And the dead man, leaving death behind, comes out.

Yes, God tenderly weeps. But this God also resurrects and restores! It is the story of Lazarus. The story of Jesus. The story of the church. The story of a hurting people who are heartbroken over a nation quarantined.

God is weeping, and God is resurrecting! Weeping over our devastation, but resurrecting us into bold new hope. Weeping over our sorrow, but resurrecting us into unexpected joy. Weeping over the rhythms of death, but resurrecting us into a grand and glorious newness of life.

So, be encouraged, friends. You are not weeping alone. There is One who cares about your pain more than you do who embraces you in the midst of it and weeps with you in a lifechanging intimacy. Best of all, when the weeping is finished, this same One will bring you forth into a new life where viruses lose their governance and where death itself relinquishes its authority.

Seriously, check out the story. It is a stunning illumination of the heart of God.

Lazarus.

Death.

Weeping.

Jesus.

Life.

The Lord’s Supper and Virtual Worship

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My spirit soars with particular energy whenever the people of the church spend time in the depths of authentic theological conversation. Presently, such theological conversation is happening robustly around the church’s virtualization (i.e., the church’s movement to online settings) in these days of quarantine and social distancing. It may be that the current theological searching and wrestling is part of God’s creative redemption of these difficult days.

Perhaps some of the most compelling recent theological discourse revolves around the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The driving question in much of the conversation is this: Can we celebrate the Lord’s Supper virtually? Or, to put in another way, can we share the sacramental bread and cup when we are connected online but not physically present in the same geographical space?

(Note: I address these matters as a United Methodist clergyperson, speaking from a United Methodist perspective. I will honor other denominations by allowing their voices and leaders to speak out of their own sacramental theology and tradition.)

Allow me to cut to the proverbial chase: In the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, our Bishop—Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi—has made it clear that United Methodist Churches in Western Pennsylvania are NOT to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in virtual settings. My sense is that the Bishop has issued this directive for no other reason but to guard both the theological identity and the ontological integrity of the sacrament (which is precisely what we count on our Bishop to do). I am grateful for Bishop Cynthia’s clarity and leadership in this regard.

Beyond this practical and clear directive, however, the theological conversation around the Lord’s Supper and its proper celebration continues to find compelling expression. Some have been quick to articulate their strong opposition to “virtual Holy Communion” on the grounds that such a practice would constitute the “disembodiment” of the sacrament—i.e., the removal of the sacrament from its necessary concreteness and its physical community. According to this argument, the act of virtualizing or digitalizing the Lord’s Supper would dangerously distort both the sacrament’s incarnational nature and its celebration of a fully-embodied Christ whose living presence calls for a fully-enfleshed community.

On the other side of the argument are those who believe that the Holy Spirit is hard at work to redefine and reconfigure “embodiment” in this season of crisis where disembodiment (i.e., social distancing) has become a necessary norm. According to this line of thought, the Holy Spirit’s sacramental work cannot be confined by the church’s physicality and is just as efficacious in a virtual connection as it is in physical congregation. Those who espouse this perspective are likely to suggest that prohibiting a virtual celebration of the Lord’s Supper irresponsibly elevates the physical over the metaphysical, thereby generating a truncated sacramentology in which the Holy Spirit is not given adequate space in which to usher an isolated people into a transformational communion with the real presence of Jesus and with one another.

So, here we are.

I would suspect that neither “side” in this sacramental discourse is comprehensively right, and that both perspectives (and other perspectives between them) articulate important priorities that help to illuminate what is ultimately best for the church’s practice. Wherever it is that you land in the spectrum of the discourse, I encourage you not to allow your position to become so soundproof that you fail to hear what is right or helpful from other voices.

My personal conviction is that the entire conversation is helping the church to develop and clarify what might be called its theology of embodiment. What do I mean by “theology of embodiment?” I simply mean the church’s understanding of how God coordinates the mystical territory between “essence” and “substance;” between “in-person” and “online;” between the corporeal and the virtual. In other words, a theology of embodiment wrestles with this question: “What truth and illumination does the Incarnation—the “in-the-flesh-ness” of God in Jesus—bring to our understanding of physicality, virtual connection, and the sharing of the bread and cup?”

The church’s current theology of embodiment does not permit the church to validate or sanction an online or virtual celebration of the Lord’s Supper. To put it simply, the church has a long history of interpreting the Lord’s Supper as the celebration of a living Christ who is embodied in the bread and cup, the consecration of which demands a physically gathered community whose corporeality bears witness to the very flesh that the Incarnation redeems. Will that interpretation change over time as our experience of virtual community continues to expand? Time will tell. But an altered sacramental interpretation would require a substantially reworked theology of embodiment.

Again, Bishop Cynthia’s instruction to the United Methodist Churches of Western Pennsylvania not to celebrate virtual or online communion is both clear and helpfully binding, which is essential to remember in our development of a unified sacramental approach.

If you are a pastor or church leader, I encourage you to continue to offer creative and safe ways for your people to experience connection, worship, prayer, and community. Utilize the telephone with new urgency. Livestream and record your worship where possible. Set up phone and video conferences for your meetings and Bible studies. Consecrate the chambers of cyberspace so that they might become tabernacles. Help your people to embrace the truth that not even a necessary social distancing can prevent the church from being the church.

In this temporary abstinence—or fast—from the Lord’s Supper, consider celebrating an online “Love Feast.” The Love Feast is a communal meal that has a rich history in the church. While it is not to be confused with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, it is a meaningful way for a congregation to experience a shared meal on those occasions (such as this season) when it would be inappropriate for the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated. I smile at the thought of the churches of my district and conference enjoying a small meal safely in their own homes while at the same time seeing the faces and hearing the voices of other church members with whom they are connected online.

Here is a link to a page with more information about the Love Feast and how to celebrate it as a church:

https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/the-love-feast

It hurts to be taken out of our normal practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, to be certain. And yet, it occurs to me that, while we are not able to share physically the bread and cup, we are finding remarkable ways to honor one of our most important eucharistic prayers:

“…Make [the bread and cup] be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”

Through the creative ministry efforts of our churches in recent days, we may be doing our best-ever “eucharistic” work in “BEING” the redeemed body of Christ until such time as we are able to share the bread and cup once again. In a sense, the Holy Spirit is making our risky and innovative ministry into a metaphorical sacramental bread that we are breaking with our desperately hungry communities. I am encouraged by the thought of that. I hope that you are as well.

When we return to the table of the Lord’s Supper soon, we will be hungrier for the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation than we have ever been. What a celebration that will be!

A Blind Man, COVID-19, and the Good Heart of God

The Healing of the Man born Blind. Museum: PRIVATE COLLECTION. Author: Russian icon.

This weekend, many of my preacher friends (in their online and technologically reconfigured worship experiences) will be focusing on a pivotal moment in John’s gospel (John 9:1-41).

Jesus and his disciples encounter a blind man—blind from birth, in fact. The disciples ask a question that emerges from their long-established and deeply-held way of looking at the world:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The question reveals a starkly equational way of looking at things, and the equation goes like this: If people experience hardship or suffering (like blindness; or cancer; or Alzheimer’s disease; or MS; or natural disasters; or COVID-19), it must be the result of God’s punishment for some transgression. In this equation, the man’s blindness is not merely the result of malfunctioning eyes. It is an existential penalty assigned by God to a sinner. Likewise, according to the equation, something like COVID-19 becomes the blunt instrument of a God with a substantial ax to grind.

The disciples were not halfwits, by the way. They were espousers of a theological system that was undergirded by a long and painful history. (Check out the chapters of the Old Testament book of Job if you need evidence of that history.) In this worldview, suffering has to have an initiator, a causal agent. And that causal agent is none other than our sovereign God, orchestrating suffering as a means of divine punishment for the sins of the past and present. The disciples, in this moment of Scripture, are not asking IF the man’s blindness is a punishment. They are simply trying to identify the guilty party:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question is something beyond what the disciples are prepared to envision or receive in the moment. It is the kind of disruptive response that begins to alter the trajectory of the church’s understanding of the world and its suffering:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus says. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

What?! What are you saying, Jesus?! Are you asking us to believe that human suffering is something other than divine punishment? Are you suggesting that this man’s blindness—or this woman’s cancer; or this child’s heart condition; or this world’s coronavirus—is something other than the work of a retributive deity? Are you really putting before us the idea that our suffering is not a penalty that God initiates but rather a brokenness that God willingly engages and eagerly redeems?

Jesus eventually heals the blind man, to be sure. But I do not believe that the blind man’s healing is the most profound miracle in this story. Rather, I believe that the most profound miracle is Jesus’ transformation of the disciples’ inadequate system of thought. Jesus incarnates a new worldview in their very presence—a worldview in which blindness and cancer and coronavirus and tornadoes and hurricanes can be looked upon, not as God’s means of punishment, but as the groaning of a world that yearns for a restoration not yet realized. In such moments of suffering, God is not the orchestrator of our hardship but its redeemer—not a punisher with questionable aim, but a compassionate Parent who vulnerably walks alongside a hurting human family, all the while providing the kind of healing and sustenance that bear witness to the goodness of the Divine Heart.

My sense is that people are asking deep and important theological questions about God’s relationship to COVID-19 (whether they realize it or not). I hope that the church will respond to those questions, not with manufactured platitudes and inadequate equations, but with the assurance of God’s good and gracious heart—a heart that heals suffering instead of causing it; a heart that will not rest until every portion of suffering finds its redemption.

Prejudice, Privilege, and the Ongoing Work of Dismantling Racism

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As Black History Month 2020 nears its conclusion, I was inspired this morning to spend some time re-reading Peggy McIntosh’s essay from the late 1980s entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” I am asking all of the United Methodist clergy and lay leaders on the Butler District to read or re-read this essay and to reflect on its content. I also hope that church leaders on my district will continue to seek out additional resources that will help them in the work of dismantling racism (such as the book “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi).

This morning, I found these words from the “Invisible Knapsack” essay to be powerfully convicting:

“In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.”

McIntosh’s words compel me to acknowledge how frequently I have been guilty of minimizing (or, worse, ignoring altogether) both the unearned privilege I experience as a white male and the oppressions made possible by the continuing existence of systemic and institutional racism. Too often, I allow my passion for dismantling racism to be quelled by my self-satisfaction with my own avoidance of individual “acts of meanness.” In so doing, I often become inattentive to the “invisible systems” of racial dominance that continue to exploit, disenfranchise, and oppress.

I once heard a United Methodist pastor offer what I think is a popular viewpoint concerning the issue of racism. Here is the pastor’s viewpoint, offered with the pastor’s permission:

I don’t know why we have to keep making racism such an issue. Most of us have been delivered from racism…But when we keep making racism a point of focus, all we’re doing is beating a dead horse and highlighting an ugly thing that doesn’t deserve to be highlighted.

Shortly after my conversation with that pastor, I heard the following comment made by a United Methodist lay person (offered, again, with permission):

People have told me that they don’t want a black pastor at our church. They’ve told me that they would leave if that kind of thing ever happened. Truth be told, I might leave too.  I guess I just wouldn’t be comfortable with that kind of thing. I would feel like I couldn’t relate to my own pastor.

Those two viewpoints help to illuminate the painful complexity of the issue of racism in the church. Racism is as real as it ever was, but we are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to inspire a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. We prefer to comfort ourselves with the shallow belief that, because we have been delivered from our individual racist “acts of meanness,” our commitment to dismantling racism has been fulfilled.

Concerning the matter of white privilege, some have gone so far as to suggest that white privilege is nothing but an artificial social construct created to further a social agenda. My own personal journey has led me to conclude that this perspective is dreadfully misguided. I have experienced far too many instances in which people of color have been confronted with racially-driven presuppositions and antagonism from which I, as a white person, am automatically exempted. As a District Superintendent, I have listened to newly-appointed clergy of color address a committee’s concerns about how the church’s first non-white pastor will be accepted, all the while knowing that I will never have to experience such scrutiny as a white United Methodist pastor in Western Pennsylvania. I have participated in far too many group conversations in which I have suddenly realized that people are making steady eye contact with me but not with the person of color standing right next to me.

Much could be added to this list. All of it bears witness to a privileged access to an unearned collection of advantages. That privileged access is decidedly white.

When one begins to take seriously a racism that is thoroughly undergirded by institutional injustices and white privilege, one is compelled to move beyond defensive rhetoric such as this:

“Those people of color are just as prejudiced as I am!”

Or this:

“People of color need to stop playing the race card in every situation, because nobody wants to hear that anymore. It’s time to get over the past.”

The danger of this kind of rhetoric is that it overlooks or, at the very least, oversimplifies the complexities of systemic racism. Moreover, such rhetoric often discounts the most crippling racism of all—specifically, the kind of racism that can only be generated and perpetuated by people in power.

I have no easy answers in the midst of all of this. This much, however, is certain: United Methodism’s emphasis upon dismantling racism is, first and foremost, one of the many necessary consequences of both the sin of racism and the fervency with which that sin has been perpetuated by both the American culture and the American church. The aftermath of this particular sin is an environment in which Christ-followers will have no choice but to be creatively and prayerfully engaged in the messy tensions that often exist related to this issue: tensions over how to create ethnically and culturally diverse communities of faith; tensions over the fact that there are so few racial/ethnic United Methodist clergy in Western Pennsylvania; tensions between those who see racism as an ongoing problem and those who simply want people of color to “get over it;” tensions over what it means to have a church that makes tangible its belief that “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in God’s sight.”

These tensions are not going away any time soon, nor should they. They are tensions emerging from the unsettling presence of a Holy Spirit who stubbornly refuses to allow a church to settle for being less than what it has been called by its Savior to be.

Personally, in my life and ministry, I want to live into an ever-deepening sensitivity to the sin of racism and all of its manifestations. Even more importantly, I want to lead by repentance. I want to name and confess all the different ways in which I have perpetuated the kind of racist presuppositions and patterns of behavior that have simultaneously fractured human community and broken the heart of God. Only then will I become a suitable laborer in the work that the dismantling of racism demands.

The Blessing Beyond the Scandal

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I had planned to read more of Matthew’s Gospel than I did this morning.

One  verse, though, unexpectedly captured my contemplation in a manner that prevented me from reading past it. It was this verse:

“[Jesus said] And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6).

The phrase “takes no offense” is one way of translating the Greek word σκανδαλισθῇ (skandalisthē), from which we derive the English word “scandal.” (This verse, by the way, is part of the reason why I am so often inclined to describe the grace of God as “scandalous.” It is a grace that can offend the sensibilities of those who wish to evaluate it by typical metrics.)

There it is, then. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at Jesus and who does not see his countercultural priorities as a stumbling block. The richest blessing of God, in other words, is to be found in a refusal to be scandalized, offended, or put off either by the grace that Jesus incarnated or the discipleship into which he calls us to live.

Matthew 11:6 took me back in my memory to a small newsstand in Grove City, Pennsylvania where I would often stop with my mother after church to pick up a Pittsburgh Press for my dad and a comic book for me. As we walked into the newsstand, I would be carrying both a Bible (which I had just spent time reading at church) and a spirit of eagerness, both of which were weighty in their own ways. On our walk home from the newsstand, as I carried both the Bible and the new comic book at my side with one hand, I remember intentionally putting the comic book on the outside and the Bible on the inside (closer to my leg) so that the Bible would not be easily visible to anyone who saw me.

Why? Why would I make such a choice? And why do I remember it so clearly today?

I am not certain that I can answer those questions definitively. But I suspect that my effort to conceal the Bible had something to do with the fact that, even as a 7-year-old, I had already learned that there was something scandalous about the life of Christian faith and the Way of Jesus. Even at that age, I had learned that risky love is often ridiculed; that the church is often perceived as foolish; that peacemakers are often marginalized; that pursuing a holiness that honors God is often seen as weakness; and that those who walk alongside outcasts are often criticized or dismissed.

Even at that age, I had come to understand that it was far safer to hide my deepest Story beneath a comic book. 

Decades later, I am less inclined to hide my Bible. This morning’s experience with Matthew 11:6, however, compels me to consider the very real possibility that I am concealing my discipleship with a more sophisticated methodology. How often, for example, do I hide the work of speaking truth to power behind a safer contentment with maintaining a superficial peace? How frequently do I  conceal much-needed repentance behind a narcissistic self-righteousness? On how many occasions do I bury the often-subversive priorities of Jesus beneath the more comfortable impulses of my personal preferences?

I may no longer conceal the Bible behind a comic book (at least on most days). And yet, I cannot help but wonder how frequently I am so “offended” or put off by Jesus’ call to a scandalous and comprehensive discipleship that I choose to hide the life to which he calls me behind the life that I am content to live.

Still, God is patient and gracious with me and makes certain that these words of Scripture resonate with power in my consciousness:

“Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

I long to experience that blessedness more deeply this Advent. It is the blessedness of a grace that brings beautiful new life to those who refuse to be offended or scandalized by the truth that Jesus illuminates—specifically, the truth that a person’s best achievements and self-reliance are not the means by which we will be saved.

For proud and independent souls like us, such an idea is almost offensive.

Even scandalous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Livability and Race Realities in the Steel City (and the Implications for Its Churches)

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Back in early September, my heart was pleasantly warmed by the news that my nearest city, Pittsburgh, was named the third “most livable” city in the United States by a research group entitled the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Way to go Pittsburgh,” I thought to myself. I was grateful that my city, often maligned or undervalued by other portions of the country, received some national affirmation and recognition for its many merits.

As is so often revealed, however, beauty always resides in the eye of the beholder—or the privileged. To put it another way, the “livability” of a city will always be judged differently by those who benefit the most and the least from its services. A highly livable environment for the privileged might at the same time become a territory of toxicity for those who find themselves marginalized or disenfranchised.

Case in point: Just yesterday, a friend and colleague drew my attention to two articles, also written in September. One of the articles was written by Brentin Mock for the website “CityLab.” The article is entitled “Pittsburgh: A ‘Most Livable’ City, But Not For Black Women.

The second article, written by Sakena Jwan Washington for the Huffington Post, was a deeply personal reflection on the first article. Here is a link to the second article, entitled “My City Was Named the ‘Worst Place for Black Women to Live.’ Is That My Cue to Leave?

Mock’s article sheds important light on troubling Pittsburgh statistics, many of which point to a city in which black girls and black women suffer from birth defect rates and death rates (along with school arrest, poverty, and unemployment rates) that are significantly higher than those of white Pittsburgh residents. These rates are also significantly higher than those of black people in the majority of other comparable cities.

To put this into perspective, consider these words from University of Pittsburgh sociology professor Junia Howell (whom Mock quotes in his article):

What this means is that if Black residents got up today and left [Pittsburgh] and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S. … their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up, as well as their employment.

As I pondered the statistic that 18 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for black women end in fetal death in Pittsburgh (as compared to 9 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for white women), I found myself undone by the enormity of what those numbers represent. In a city known for its teaching hospitals and medical technology, we have nurtured an environment in which fetal death is twice as likely among black infants than it is among white infants. At the very beginning of a life’s journey in Pittsburgh, there is a stark inequity that cannot be ignored or minimized.

In her reflection on Mock’s article (which is as poignant as it is eloquent), Sakena Jwan Washington, a professional “Black woman from Pittsburgh who also happens to be the mother of a Black girl,” gives voice to her own experience of Pittsburgh and its dynamics:

I wonder if I’m living in the dark. I’m surely not ignorant to the fact that most of my friends and colleagues are white. Or that finding a Black hair salon sometimes feels like going on a scavenger hunt, or that the Shadow Lounge ― a Black-owned lounge I once frequented monthly ― closed after gentrification shuttered its doors, or that my favorite jazz lounge closed for the same reason. It’s not lost on me that when an independent film like Toni Morrison’s biopic ‘The Pieces I Am’ comes to town, it plays in one theater in the entire city. I’m aware and I grumble about my observations every day. And yet, I’m still here.

I hear in Washington’s words the echoes of a marginalization that I will never be able fully to understand as a white male Pittsburgher but that I dare not minimize. The echoes compel me to wonder about the long-term impact of an institutionalized segregation that is so thoroughly embedded in a city’s ethos and daily patterns that it is routinely accepted as normative. “I might be able to operate in this sort of segregated atmosphere,” Washington writes, “but can my daughter? Will there be educational options in Pittsburgh that are both diverse and receive the same level of resources I had access to in my predominantly white private schools?”

These are questions that hang in the philosophical air, demanding the attentiveness of any Pittsburgher who longs for a city that is committed to justice and equity for all of its citizens and families.

I traffic in the rhythms of western Pennsylvania church life (United Methodist church life, more specifically). As a clergy person in a conference that has named “Dismantling Racism” as one of its areas of focus, it is one of my responsibilities to nurture the kind of spaces (and churches) in which racism in all of its forms (personal and systemic) is recognized, named, rejected, and actively dismantled. In recent days, I have seen deeply encouraging glimpses of my tribe’s commitment to this work.

A few weeks back, for example, during a time of anti-racism training, another white pastor spoke to me about one of his newly-energized priorities: “I have spent too many years giving lip-service to dismantling racism in the churches that I have served,” he said. “I am making it a priority in 2020 to help my [predominantly white] congregation and community to experience the kinds of resources, relationships, and conversations that will deepen their understanding of racism, privilege…and the sin of complicity.” His words inspired me to reflect on my own priorities in this regard—along with my own complicity.

At the same time, resistance to the work of dismantling racism finds expression in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I suggested to a ministry team recently that we read an article together entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (written by Peggy McIntosh), simply because I believed that the dynamics of white privilege were pertinent to the matters we were discussing. The body language in the room (which I have gotten fairly good at reading over the years) communicated a collective lack of hospitality to my suggestion. My interpretation of the body language was later confirmed by one of the team members, whose perspective I share with permission: “I know that racism still exists,” she said, “but when we keep fixating on it, all that we do is create resentment and enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I found the imagery of her words painfully ironic: “enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I wonder how that kind of imagery would fall upon the heart of an Asian-American or African-American pastor in Western Pennsylvania who is daily confronted by the reality of being the only person of color in the room (and in the sanctuary); or a person of color who regularly experiences both implicit and explicit racial biases that reinforce isolating and even dehumanizing presuppositions; or the black female Pittsburgher navigating the injustices and inequities illuminated by recent statistics. How can dismantling racism remain a focus when resistance to conversations about racism and a burgeoning sense of white fragility have begun to govern portions of the collective consciousness?

I suppose the dynamics that I am describing only serve to elucidate the complexity of the situation related to race. Racism is as real as it ever was, but far too many white people are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to inspire a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. The statistics related to black women in Pittsburgh are what they are, but we comfort ourselves with the manufactured belief that we have been completely delivered from our racist history.

If the United Methodist Church in western Pennsylvania is to succeed in keeping the dismantling of racism as an authentic point of focus, there are some governing convictions that white United Methodists in this region will have to embrace and guard. One of those convictions is that participating consistently in strategic conversations and training related to racism and privilege does not “enslave us to the problem” but rather generates a necessary spirit of galvanizing solidarity between the church and those for whom the problem truly is enslaving.  A second conviction would be that a condemnation of racism runs the risk of becoming anemic if it is not accompanied by a risky commitment from the privileged to utilize their voices in the fostering of expanded agency for the disenfranchised, disruptive truth-telling, and energized advocacy.

As a white male, my privilege often blinds me. I am painfully aware of that blindness, even as I type these words. It makes me all the more grateful for those souls in my journey (including my clergy colleagues) who love me enough to bring me into difficult but important conversations about race and who value me enough to hold me accountable for my ongoing participation in the relentlessly urgent work of dismantling the machinery of racism—a machinery that exists in both the hallways of our churches and the chambers of my own heart.

Sakena Jwan Washington concludes her article about Pittsburgh in this fashion:

The hard question for me is will my daughter struggle with connectedness the way I once did, and will a move to a city with a more robust Black middle class lessen her struggle? Is this a game-time decision, or must I act now?  Will I stay and be a pioneer for change, or will I leave to occupy spaces where I know, without question, my family will feel like they belong?

I hope and pray that she stays, but I know that my hopes and prayers are not enough. They must be accompanied by my commitment to the nurturing of spaces in which the kind of connectedness and belonging that Washington envisions can be pursued and experienced with integrity and hope. Only then will the “pioneers of change” get the strong sense that they are not alone in their pioneering.

Don’t GO Home, But BE at Home: A Reflection On Women In Ministry

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(Artwork: “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well”—from Japan, unknown artist)

It was a significant moment and not in a good way.

On October 18, as part of a panel discussion at a “Truth Matters Conference” in Sun Valley, California, author and pastor John MacArthur was asked to share (in just a couple of words) his thoughts about author and preacher Beth Moore. MacArthur’s response was as stark as it was revelatory.

“Go home,” he said.

“Go home!”

MacArthur went on to clarify his response: “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. End of discussion.”

“Go home!”

In his words from that Sun Valley platform, MacArthur successfully encapsulated what countless women who are called by God to ministry have heard from many within the Body of Christ:

No! Not you! You have obviously misheard God’s voice and misunderstood God’s call on your life. The Bible is clear: Women are not to have authority over men, and we refuse to believe that Jesus and the Holy Spirit have inaugurated a new worldview in which gender-based hierarchy no longer makes sense. Turn away from this unauthorized sense of call. This ministry is not for you. Go home!

Having watched the video of MacArthur’s comments, even more troubling to me than the comments themselves is the response of the audience. It was a response of laughter, loud and energized—a dehumanizing “amen” that felt less like church and more like a shared derision pointed toward Beth Moore, a sister in Christ who was not even present at the conference.

MacArthur’s words and the audience’s response to them immediately brought to my mind the faces of many women whose leadership, preaching, and teaching has shaped and nurtured me throughout my pilgrimage. If the women preachers have to go home, then so do I, since I would not be who and what I am without those female clergypersons whose ministry has been instrumental in making me more authentically human and more holistically Christian.

My female colleagues in ministry certainly do not need my defense, nor do they need my expressions of righteous anger (especially since, as a white male, my “righteous anger” can sometimes sound like little more than patronizing rhetoric or perhaps even a superficial assuagement of a highly privileged guilt). Still, I long to speak to the hearts of my sisters and to the heart of the church.

But what might I say?

Perhaps I will simply reframe MacArthur’s language so that the vocabulary of “home” might find its proper redemption. Here goes:

Sisters in ministry, please, for the sake of the Gospel we love, do not even think about going home. Instead, in the rhythms of our fallen church’s broken ministry, BE at home!

Yes. Maybe that is what I feel most led to say. Sisters in ministry…

…BE at home!

Be at home in a church that has often been anything but hospitable to you but that desperately needs your leadership and vision.

Be at home in a deeper reading of Scripture that refuses to weaponize texts but instead interprets them through the hermeneutical lens of the Living Word.

Be at home in a post-Pentecost reality in which both sons and daughters are called and equipped to proclaim and lead.

Be at home amid your broken church’s ongoing repentance to which I add my voice and heart—a repentance in which I name my complicity (often manifested in my silence) in maintaining gender-based hierarchies and inequities.

Be at home in the renewed commitment being made by many of your male colleagues (including this one) to identify and stand against misogyny in all of its expressions.

Be at home in your divine calling that cannot be stifled and micromanaged by the machinery of patriarchy; be at home in a righteous anger that many of your brothers carry with you; be at home in a stubborn refusal to accommodate false stories and weaponized Scripture.

Male colleagues, be at home in utilizing your voice and agency in prophetic ways to dismantle patterns and practices that are unjust or distorted and to advocate for female voices that desperately need to be heard.

Female colleagues, be at home where you already are—in the heart of the church’s ministry.

Most of all, be at home in Jesus Christ, who is always a trustworthy dwelling place, even when the institutional church is not.

Be at home.