My Thoughts – BlackkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman Movie PosterI’m not a movie critic. Sometimes when I read what others have written about movies, my own thoughts seem to be so inadequate. Maybe if I saw more movies, and then chose to review them I’d get better at it. But then, life as a movie critic is not my job.

My current job is both a job and a title, Pastor. Specifically, pastor in a Lutheran Church that is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). We are one of the (if not the most) whitest denominations in America. The synod of which I am a part (Los Angeles and surrounding counties) is the most diverse, something to be proud of. But my congregation is not one of those diverse congregations I am sad to say. I am a white pastor in a majority Mexican immigrant city. I speak some Spanish and am continually working at it. But so far, my efforts to lead us to being a more diverse church have had limited success. This is just a bit of my context.

Today, for Labor Day, I went to see BlackkKlansman. It was a powerful movie. It bridges the past and the present in such a way that it is impossible to close our eyes to the ongoing evil of white supremacy in our nation.

I don’t use the word “evil” lightly. It was evil to kidnap and subsequently enslave people. It was evil to keep their children as slaves. It was a most horrible evil to sometimes rip children from the arms of their parents so that they could be sold again. Slavery in this nation was done under the guise of Christianity, my religion. This was evil.

This was not the subject of the movie. But I couldn’t help to think of it because this sin of slavery is at the heart of the racism that we continue to live with today.

BlackkKlansman is a story that is based on a memoir. I don’t know what of it is true memoir and what is added story telling.

An uncomfortable, for me, aspect of this story was the juxtaposition of scenes depicting calls for white power alongside demonstrations with calls for black power. I am uncomfortable because I often wonder how we will ever progress. The story also almost allows us (white people) to tell ourselves that we aren’t part of the KKK and thus we are not racist. It touches on the institutional aspects of racism but even there, it depicts a racist police officer rather than a system that is biased against people of color. Alas, there is too much to cover in a single movie.

As a pastor, I continually preach that we are allcreated in God’s image and that means us all people. I also lament the fact that too many of my fellow (white) Christians don’t seem to be able to see this beauty in all of God’s creation. I often wonder about my place among Christianity, because it seems as if the most vocal proponents of my faith are also vocal proponents of white supremacy. Even if they don’t use those words.

I’ve heard arguments along the lines of, “no, that is not us, but we just want everyone to get along.” But then the next line of the conversation is to attack Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization. I don’t know how many times I have tried to explain the reason the Black Lives Matter movement is necessary.

I once had a very long dialog with a distant family member. He is an evangelical Christian and he had no desire to learn about why people are protesting. It was easier for his to condemn the protestors as members of a hate group. I went so far as to try and find people in his city for him to meet and to learn from. But once I made this step, it became clear that he wasn’t interested in learning. It turns out that he was just trying to figure out how “unchristian” I am because of my “liberal” positions. The conversation ended with his telling me that he’s learned a bit about ELCA Lutherans and it appears that I am where I belong (not a compliment from his perspective), and that he would pray for me. I wanted to scream that I don’t want these prayers. I didn’t scream, but I did say that instead of praying for me, maybe he could pray to see.

I’m tired and I’m white and I’m privileged and I’ve not done enough and I’m not doing enough and I’m tired.

Stamped from the BeginningI cannot imagine how exhausted my Black sisters and brothers must be in living with the structural racism that is so much a part of our culture. It is like the air we breathe. Don’t believe me? I suggest you read, starting with “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” by Ibram X. Kendi. If anyone reading this would like to read this book as a group – in person gatherings or online, please let me know. I think we could learn a lot together.

Our learning the history of slavery, segregation, and racism from times past until now is necessary for us to be able to see the truth that is all around us. We need to learn so that we can see and so that we can work for a better today and a better tomorrow. I don’t believe that it should be the responsibility of our Black citizens to get us white people to change. It should be up to us! It is our continued collective sin in burying our heads as we try to say, “that’s not me” or “that’s not us.”

Letter From Birmingham Jail is included in this book
As I think of this I am reminded of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” I’ve often said that if I could, I would add this letter to the canon of scripture. I don’t’ have that ability, but I can still use it in matters of faith. And as I think about this movie, and the state of affairs in our country today I am reminded of his calling to account of the “white moderate.” For Rev. King, the moderate was in many ways worse than the overt racist because the moderate just went along with the status quo. This was not helpful then and it is not helpful now.

Well my friends, this was definitely not a review of the movie! Please see it. Please read what our sibling of color are writing. And please know that the God that I know is a gracious God. This God calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. All our neighbors. It’s not easy to do but it starts with opening our eyes to see.

This pastor hopes and prays that we will.

Growing up racist #5…or I never knew that

I’ve been reading the very good, but very uncomfortable to read book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” It’s been a slow read for me, but from an historical perspective I am finally to the 60s, thus to when I was born. One paragraph struck me today because it is such an example of how language perpetuates ideas without our even being aware of it…the topic is language symbolism. Coincidentally I read of this very concept when reading a commentary on Mark’s gospel today. Both are food for thought for Sunday’s sermon. Here is the long quote:

Language symbolism and a conference on race and color in Copenhagen in 1965:

Scholars pointed out everyday phrases like “black sheep,” “blackballing,” and “blacklisting,” among others, that had long associated Blackness and negativity.

The language symbolism was no less striking in two new American identifiers: “minority” and “ghetto.” For centuries, racists had construed Black folk as minors to White majors, and that history could be easily loaded into their latest identifier of the supposed lesser peoples: minorities. The appellation only made sense as a numerical term, and as a numerical term, it only made sense indicating national population or power dynamics. But it quickly became a racial identifier of African Americans (and other non-Whites) – even in discussions that had nothing to do with national issues. It made no sense as another name for Black people, since most Black people lived, schooled, worked, socialized, and died in majority-Black spaces. The term only made sense from the viewpoint of Whites, who commonly related to Black people as the numerical minority in their majority-White spaces, and elite Blacks, who were more likely to exist as the numerical minority in majority-White spaces. And so, class racism – downgrading the lives of Black commoners in majority Black spaces – became wrapped up in the term “minority,” not unlike a term that psychologist Kenneth Clark had popularized after putting aside brown and light dolls.

In 1965, Clark published his seminal text, Dark Ghetto. The term “ghetto” was known as an identifier of the ruthlessly segregated Jewish communities in Nazi Germany. Though social scientists like Clark hoped the term would broadcast the ruthless segregation and poverty that urban Blacks faced, the word quickly assumed a racist life of its own. (364)

Interestingly (sadly) many whites are now afraid of becoming a numerical minority…maybe some of the angst is because of the idea (even if its subliminal) that minority equals “not good.”

I’m sure I’ll read about more but until then, I wonder how many other words are still in our lexicon?

Can anything good come out of …? Today’s sermon

Can anything good come out of Oxnard?

I remember an encounter in my first days here at Our Redeemer. It was with Rusty Jackson, a long time (but not his entire life) Oxnard resident and founding member of the church. Upon our introduction, he looked at me, and with a twinkle in his eye said, “You know they say that nothing good comes out of Oxnard.”

Was he referring to this text in John’s gospel? Where Nathanael seems to initially reject Jesus because he was from Nazareth? Philip had invited him to come and meet Jesus, who just might be the promised Messiah. But this promised Messiah was coming from the wrong town, the town with the bad reputation.

We don’t really know why Nathanael scoffed at the idea of something good coming from Nazareth because we don’t know too much about the town except that it was small. And maybe that’s the point… sometimes we scoff at or are afraid of that which we don’t know.

Can anything good come out of Oxnard? Some outside of Oxnard would say “no.”

I remember being in a group of people in Ventura a few years ago. The leader was asking where everyone was from. Most were identifying some neighborhood in Ventura. I said, “Oxnard.” And the leader replied, “I’m sorry.” We’ve since become friends and I’m not sure he would respond in the same way today.

I think that all of us in Oxnard, whether we live elsewhere and worship here, whether we’ve moved here, or whether we were born here and continue to live here… I think that we all can say there is mostly certainly good that comes out of Oxnard. We can be proud here at Our Redeemer that we are known for our excellent preschool…good comes from here!

So maybe we are better prepared than others to not so quickly dismiss a place because we don’t know enough. I’ve told you stories of my once upon a time fear of parts of Los Angeles. In retrospect my fear of LA was a racist fear of others…or people I didn’t know. But then I went there and spent time and learned how ignorant I was.

Today, in our divided nation and even divided world, we may find ourselves asking the question more often…of places, of people, of affiliated groups.

All of my sermon up to this point was written before the news broke of the president using vile language to describe countries south of our borders (Haiti and El Salvador) and all the countries that make up the continent of Africa. What I had written after this point seemed so sadly connected and yet irrelevant…so an update was in order.

Today, with the gospel text in one hand and the news in the other, the question asked by Nathanael, ”Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Becomes the questions:

Can anything good come out of El Salvador?

Can anything good come out of Haiti?

Can anything good come out of Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe?

Can anything good come from these countries whose residents have dark skins? Or does all the good stuff come from countries like Norway, whose residents are white?

On this weekend, when we honor the ministry and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are presented with these questions. Our faith gives us the answer.

The answer is not found in the stories of all the good that has been done by immigrants from these countries…and other countries. Certainly their contributions help to make America great, even as we remember that except for Native Americans we are all from someplace else. It’s also important to remember that the majority of our African American brothers and sisters trace their roots to people who were forcibly kidnapped and sold as slaves…and it was their work…unpaid work…that led to much of the prosperity upon which this nation was built. We are still dealing with the legacy of this racism… of this evil.

I digress… the answer to the question of whether anything good can come from these countries is not found in the good things that people from these countries do…as appreciated and honored those good things are. But the problem with uplifting people who’ve done well is that we imply that they must earn the respect that is due to them as human beings.

No the answer to the question of whether anything good can come from these countries…through our faith…is a resounding YES!

Yes…good can come from these places because God is good and God is there just as God is here. When we look at our world we remember that it is good because God created it and then said “it is good.” And on that ultimate day of creation, God made human beings, God said, “it is very good.”

It is very good… our created world and all the inhabitants. Because of sin, no place is perfect, including these United States. Because of sin, no person is perfect, including you and me. And that is why Jesus came… because of love for this big giant imperfect mess of a world. And his primary teaching to his disciples and to us is that the only way that we could make things better and that is to love one another as we love God.

It’s that simple and it’s that difficult.

Did you notice Philip’s response to Nathanael’s question? He didn’t argue. He just said, “come and see.” And with these words took Nathanael to meet Jesus.

Let’s go and see.

I have a friend who organizes a mission trip to El Salvador every August…who wants to go? I’d love to join him, while bringing others along. But maybe we can’t all travel to other countries. We can still make concerted efforts to learn about people of other nationalities, faiths, and political perspectives so that we can see the humanity and even the face of Jesus in those we do not know. Jesus loves them and invites us to love them too.

Growing Up Racist – #3

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” -Genesis 1:27

I love the first creation story in Genesis. I love the poetic way the writer describes order coming out of chaos. I love the way the early understanding of the world meant the sky was seen as a great dome. I love how after each day of creation “God saw that it was good.”

This creation story is not about science. It is a story about God bringing order out of chaos. It is a story of love. It is a story that allows us to think about beginnings and the wonder of this world. But mostly I love the egalitarian description of our creation.

Humankind, men and women, were created in the image of God. As we, together, are created in this image it is only possible to reflect that image when we are together.

When I meet with people who have been hurt by the church, it is often because someone has told them that they are “less than.” I always say, “you are created in God’s image and God loves you the way you were created.” This has been important for me to share with those sisters and brothers of mine in the LGBTQ community.

Today I am thinking of the awful human made idea of “race.” This idea that our skin color makes us different from one another, with those possessing white (or light) skin being created as superior. This is not true. This is not biblical. This is sin.

A struggle with this sin is that its debasing ideas are so steeped in our culture that we don’t always recognize our own thoughts as racist.

I remember the first time I consciously thought about skin color. We had moved to Texas (outside of Chandler in East Texas) and I was in 2nd grade. This would have been in the late 60s so the schools had already been desegregated.

I rode the bus…for a very long time. We lived 13 miles out of town and so were the first picked up and the last dropped off. To this day I’m not a fan of riding busses.

I discovered quickly that the busses were segregated. There were two African American boys, twins, in my class. They lived a little ways down the highway. In fact they were the only children who lived near us. But they rode a separate bus. We never played together.

In my childish naiveté, I hadn’t considered different skin color as representative of different “race” and thus the need to be separated. My first thought had been that an older sister of mine had darker skin than me. I was thankful she still lived in California because if she had come to Texas with us they would have made her ride a separate bus. The logic of a 2nd grader.

The 2nd grade me lost the opportunity to play with and be friends with the boys down the highway. Just because of skin color.

The other loss for the 2nd grader was the subconscious learning that there must have been something wrong with these boys. Why else would they and others need to be separated?

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” -Genesis 1:27

There was nothing wrong with those boys. There was something wrong with the adults. There was something wrong in a culture that perverts the truth that ALL humans are created in God’s image, and thus are precious. I wish I knew these boys. I pray for them. I pray for me. I pray for the day when we see our neighbors as precious in God’s sight and thus precious in our sights as well.

By the way, after God created human beings…male and female and with different skin, eye, and hair color, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good (Genesis 1:31).”

When did you first become aware of racism?

Quit when it’s hard? No Way!

IMG_3672.JPGMost of us have contemplated quitting something. Sometime our reasons are perfectly valid, but not always. I’ve been thinking about this topic, quitting, after my latest fall while hiking (read about it here: Overdoing It).

I confess that while picking myself up, rinsing off the blood, and brushing all the dirt off my clothing I thought that maybe I should give up trails…running and hiking them. Once we started walking again I voiced this defeatist idea to Scott, who responded, “but one of your falls wasn’t on a trail.” Oh yeah. This is a perfect example of why we need to share our thoughts with others.

I’ve still been thinking about it though. Not because I want to give up trail running but because I wonder if maybe we are too quick sometimes to quit. We face difficulties in all areas of life: work, home, trying to eat healthy, relationships, societal, basically anywhere we want to improve on something we face difficulties. Or maybe a better way of looking at it is that positive change is hard.

Those of us born with a stubborn gene (I’m sure there is one) are probably at a bit of an advantage here, because we don’t like to admit defeat. But still there are times when we’ve contemplated giving up on something.

While I have many stories of persevering, and stubbornly holding on when I shouldn’t, I’ll just share two for you. One when I quit and one when I didn’t. They’re both related  to my Call as a pastor.

First, I wasn’t raised in a church. And as a teenage and young adult I didn’t like Christians. (This is a long story that I’ve shared in my church, and maybe will share in a blog post some day). Anyway, when I was in my late 20s-early 30s I sent my children to a Lutheran preschool and that was the beginning of my slow, slow, slow immersion into the Lutheran church. This mostly happened because I met Lutheran Christians who were very different than the stereotype that I had of Christians.

Eventually I became more involved, participated in Bible studies, participated in ministry training programs, and began to feel a call to serve in some greater way. At the time I was a member (and now staff member) of a Lutheran church in a denomination that does not recognize God’s call on women leaders. I went to seminary (Fuller in Pasadena) “because I wanted to learn more.” While there I began more and more to discover that God was leading me to something far different than I had ever imagined. Unfortunately I was in a church that said, “no you are wrong to think that God would call you in this way.”

Some in this denomination told me “if you don’t like it then leave.” Yeah, saying that to a stubborn person usually insures they’ll stay! Others wanted me to stay and work for change. But I eventually came to the conclusion that God did not call me to “bang my head against the wall” trying to change something, when in reality I had no voice. This denomination needs men to step up!

So I quit. Not because it was hard but because I recognized that I needed to be elsewhere. Maybe it’s the seeing another path that is a good sign for those times we do need to quit whatever it is we are struggling to accomplish.

Fast forward many years… I am now a pastor in a different Lutheran Church (ELCA) and have served for a little over seven years at my congregation in Oxnard CA. I honestly can’t say that I’ve been an awesome pastor, but maybe I can say I’ve been a human pastor. Maybe that’s all we can expect.

It’s interesting to become a pastor at a time the church (not just my congregation) is declining. There are all sorts of reasons for this and many have ideas of what we should be doing…I could go to conferences on this probably every month.

I often say (and believe) that the church will always exist, but not as we know it today. Yet I don’t know what that future church will look like. Some leader!

So, it’s hard.

I never, before becoming a pastor, thought I’d be addressing massacres and racism and terrorism. Naive on my part! I still remember my hands shaking as I got up to preach on the Sunday after Sandy Hook…then again and again.

I’ve tried mightily to explain why Black Lives Matter as a movement is so important…and that I know Black Lives Matter to God.

I helped lead us to become a congregation that welcomes and affirms our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. We are a safe place in this regard.

Then last November’s election happened and I had to question my call. Every day I had to start the day with remembering my gratitude, because what I really wanted to do was to quit trying. I grieved…not so much for myself but for my brothers and sisters who are not white cisgendered middle (or upper) class Americans. I could not understand how those who follow Jesus could support someone who was so hateful towards others.

For most of November I wondered if I really did have a call. I talked. I ran. I prayed. I ran. I read. I prayed. And I ran some more. And I came to the conclusion that I do have a call. To use my voice (even in a small church) to speak of God’s love for the oppressed, the marginalized, the immigrant, the orphan, the widow, the poor.

It’s been hard.

I’ve been reading more about racism lately. I’ll share some discoveries later. After Charlottesville I believe that it is even more important. I also believe that it is not the responsibility of my African American sisters and brothers to convince me (and those like me and in my church) that change is needed. I believe that this is a call from God, not just to me, but to the church. I’ve said this to my congregation. Will we respond to this call? I hope so.

Do I fully know what to do? No. But in every hard thing that I’ve done, I’ve not known fully what to do. I can even think of instance where if I’d known, I may not have started. So I’m ok with discerning with others the next steps. The lives of people who God loves depend on this. The church depends on it as well even if her members don’t realize it.

It’s hard…but I’m not quitting.

And…I’ll keep trail running too, hopefully I’ll be better at picking up my feet.

Growing up Racist #2

“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” 2 Corinthians 7:10

What is godly grief? I think of it as the regret, or better, the shame that comes with recognizing the sinfulness of past (& current) behavior. Godly grief comes when we can begin to see differently. Godly grief leads to repentance…which is another way of saying that it leads to us changing our minds and changing our direction.

We are in dire need of godly grief in our nation. We, and I am speaking to white Christians, need to recognize and repent of the systemic racism that continues to define life for our brothers and sisters of color. Often, though, we become defensive and resist seeing, pretending that the problem is for another time and for other people. As part of my own confession and repentance I am remembering the racism that I’ve been a participant. Today’s story could be thought of as “casual racism” and I’m sure that some would defend it as, ‘no big deal.” But it is.

Right out of high school I went to Long Beach City College. While there I joined a “wanna-be” sorority. It was fun, but it was also a time when I engaged in some of my worst behavior (wild living). This club, like others, had to raise money for various activities and in my time there they had one large event fundraiser. A slave sale.

That’s right a slave sale. This was a night when we (female club members) would auction ourselves off…to guys. Following would be dates, or washing a car, or baking cookies, or something. As I think back on it now I’m appalled that I participated and that I did not have the maturity to recognize the casual racism and sexism that were at the heart of this fundraiser. This was truly despicable.

I am grateful for becoming a woman of faith who can say, “no, that was not ok.” I am thankful for the forgiveness God offers me. I don’t presume to think that I can receive forgiveness from those who have been hurt by casual racism and sexism.

What about you? What do you remember from your past?

Growing up racist – #1

“for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:29)

I’m writing today to my white skinned sisters and brothers…

Racism is the great challenge facing our country today (and yesterday and the day before that). Because most of us, being white, don’t usually experience the outright racism that we’ve seen in our country this week, we often don’t think there is a real problem. We can easily dismiss the cries for justice. We can easily choose to close our eyes and our ears.

And when we’re identified as racist, we indignantly cry, “NOT ME!” This cry makes sense because we reject white supremacy, we reject Nazis, we reject white nationalism. So how can we be racist?

I had a professor (in seminary) who used the analogy of fish swimming in water to describe culture. The fish cannot see the water just as we cannot see the air we breathe. The same goes with culture in that there is much we “know” and “believe” without actually being cognizant of it.

This morning I ran a nice, easy and enjoyable 5 miles. My run was, as is often the case, a good time for me to think about my sermon for Sunday. The verse above, from Romans, is part of the text for this week. I love the message that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. Not only are they irrevocable, but they are free and they are unconditional. Unfortunately we don’t always hear this message and when we do, we have trouble believing it.

It was as I contemplated this, I remembered something from my childhood. Maybe you remember it too. Indian Giver.

Do you remember this? It was what you said to someone who was not honest. It was what you said to someone who reneged on an offer to give you something. It implied the revocation of a gift. It was an insult. What makes it doubly insulting is that our nation were the one who were not honest with the indigenous. It was (and still is) our nation that stole (steals) land from the indigenous. It was our nation that broke treaties.

But to justify the horrible way we’ve treated the indigenous, we projected our sins on to them…as a culture. So that when I was a child, Indian Giver, meant thief and until I learned otherwise I accepted that.

This is just one of many examples…it happens to be the one that came to mind while I ran this morning. I plan to share more examples as I remember them. I’m glad I remembered because we need to remember these things. It is in remembering that we can repent and hopefully start down the road towards peace.

Please know that God’s gift of grace is irrevocable and it is for you. I hope and pray that as we live into this gift we better see our siblings as God’s beloved.

What examples can you remember?