Wednesday
Aug202014

James Cone, The Persistent Widow, and Theological Responses to Riots

Jes Kast-Keat is currently on holiday and has invited Daniel José Camacho to write today. Daniel is currently a Masters of Divinity student at Duke University Divinity School. He graduated from Calvin College in 2013 with a major in philosophy and minor in congregational & ministry Studies.

I was profoundly disturbed when I saw the chilling images initially coming out of Ferguson, Missouri last week. Mike Brown, another unarmed black teenager, laid dead in the streets. His mother: crying, pleading. Brown’s father: holding up a sign reading “Ferguson Police Just Executed My Unarmed Son!!!”. Then came the images of Ferguson police’s militarization and brutality in response to protests and unrest. What pained me, in the midst of this, was knowing the inevitability of many—but certainly not all—Christians failing to understand the gravity and lopsidedness of this situation. Yes, the robbing and destruction of stuff is bad but that is not the same as the occupation and destruction of people. I stopped and prayed: “Dear Jesus, please help the church avoid abstract talks of reconciliation & peace that avoid addressing police brutality/militarization.”

The situation in Ferguson made me recall something that James Cone had written in 1975. In the book “God of the Oppressed,” Cone recounts his disappointment with Christian responses to the Detroit riot during the summer of 1967, responses which simply deplored “unrest” and failed to see the fundamental issues at stake. He writes:

I knew that that response was not only humiliating and insulting but wrong. It revealed not only an insensitivity to black pain and suffering but also, and more importantly for my vocation as a theologian, a theological bankruptcy. The education of white theologians did not prepare them to deal with Watts, Detroit, and Newark.

I wonder how much has changed. What in our theological formation has prepared us for Ferguson?

 

This summer, I’ve been working at a summer school program hosted at a church. As the seminarian on staff, I’ve spent a good amount of time preparing children’s sermons from the Gospels. One thing that struck me was my own unfamiliarity with a particular parable about a persistent widow. As a church kid, born and raised, I thought I had deep if not faint memories of almost every single parable. But then I came across this passage from Luke 18:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

I wondered why I had never really heard about this “bothersome” widow; she had never been held up to me as someone to emulate. Perhaps this omission is connected to the widow’s pursuit for justice and our own discomfort with people who demand justice, who insist on it unrelentingly.

The remarkable thing about this parable is that it’s supposed to be about praying and not losing heart. And the example we get is the “in your face” widow who wants justice against her opponent. Maybe this is a good example of Ora et Labora. We pray, yes, but we also work. We do. We dismantle. We work to change the conditions of this world.

How should we respond to Ferguson and to the many places in our country and world that resemble it? We pray. But we also have a lot of work to do.

Wednesday
Aug062014

Lamentation

I know it's not Ash Wednesday. It's not even Lent: a  time in our church calendar where we are given space to mourn, lament, and prayerfully think about the problem of evil and sin in this world. Yet I will be preaching on lament this Sunday because there has been so much violence and saddness manifested in the world this summer that the people of God need to take this heaviness to God in worship.

Scott Hoezee wrote an excellent blog yesterday entitled "The Sad Summer" addressing the very things that we will take to God in worship. He named many of the events, and topics, that we will be praying for and interceding on behalf in worship. I was particularly struck by the paragraph that Scott talked about children in vulnerable situations and comparing this with Theresa Latini's wonderful piece "Top 10 Signs that You're a Mother of a Newborn." He wrote:

In all of this, it is the suffering and the death of the children that all but smother my spirit.   Last week in her first blog since returning from a bit of maternity leave, Theresa Latini wrote a lyric piece on the wonder of being a mother and the splendor of a new child.   And what Theresa wrote there is very much how life is supposed to be.   But in too many parts of this world children are in a very different situation.  As Pulitzer-prize winning author Sonia Nazario (author of the newly relevant Enrique's Journey) has reminded us, the children fleeing to the U.S. from Honduras really are fleeing for their lives as the drug cartels have taken over and are now forcing 12-year-olds to become either junkies or drug dealers or both.  And instead of helping these desperate kids, we have turned them into a political football who have a good chance of being shot by Rick Perry's National Guard troops or ballyhooed as criminals and worse by Tea Party folks whose "America First" attitude puts a big piece of duct tape over Lady Liberty's "Give me your tired, your poor" plaque. 

Meanwhile, why do children have to be blown to bits while hiding out in a school?  Why do they have to fall 33,000 feet because someone thought it was a good idea to give idiots one of the world's most sophisticated missiles? 

I think of my childhood of running around and getting muddy in a pretend fort in the back of my grandmother's house. I had the luxury of using my imagination while never being at risk of any real threat with the exception of a bee sting here and there from my grandmother's garden. Many of the children we see on the news don't need an imaginary fortress of safety they quite literally need shelter from much greater threats than the garden bees. My justice radar goes off so quickly inside me and I think how is this fair? The reality is, it's not. So we pray for justice and the mercy of God our Creator.

I love the lament Psalms. Just under 50% of the Psalms have lament themes in them. That's a lot of honest prayer. That's a lot of ungilden communication with God. That's a lot of angry and sad words to God. Where do we go when we are pissed off at the injustices in this world? We go to God. I think lament prayers come from the most faithful for it takes a lot of faith to cry out "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" This is not a prayer of abandonment of faith, this is the prayer of someone who has entered the depths of faith. 

If honesty, unfiltered thoughts, are the noticeable features of a lamentation then the backbone of the prayer is a deep and faithful trust in God. Think about it, if one did not have a hope in God, why would one even bother to offer their laments? The backbone of lamentation is hope. We lament to find hope again. What we don't lament will never change.

John Witvliet, in his 1997 Reformed Worship article entitled "A Time to Weep", says the basic structure to a lament prayer is:

  1. Our lament begins with invocation, a startling confession that even in times of crisis, we approach a personal and accessible God
  2. Then, our lament freely addresses this personal God through the picturesque gallery of images used in direct address in the psalms. 
  3. Our prayer continues with bold lament. We bring our most intense theological questions right into the sanctuary.
  4. Then our prayer continues with specific petition: heal us, free us, save us
  5. Finally, our prayer ends with expressions of hope, confidence, and trust, however muted they might be by the present situation 

Carol Bechtel taught me how to love the Psalms, and boy do I. They are so human to me and I need the humaness of spirituality quite often. I need the human God in Jesus. The cool thing about lamentation is that we don't have to just pray the Psalms we can actually write our own lament. John Witvliet's guidance provides a helpful structure for us to pray our own complaints. I have many journals filled with lamentation for global catastrophes and personal annoyances. Lament gives us a place to put our anger and complaints. Instead of repressing our anger (how awful!) and instead of blasting it on our Twitter feeds to passively deal with (also awful) let's take our anger directly to the source of all creation: God! Trusting that God is as merciful and full of steadfast love as the Old Testament writers convey we can come to God and pray "How long, Oh Lord, will fighting in Gaza continue? How long, Oh Lord, till domestic abuse is no more? How long, Oh Lord, will the church fight about who is truly Christian? How long, Oh Lord, till racist systems are no more? How long, Oh Lord, till peace? Truly, how long, Oh Lord?"

This Sunday we will cry out to God on behalf of our fellow humans around the world. This Sunday we will use this season of Ordinary Time to grow in our practice of lament. 

My colleague in NYC, Peter Armstrong, reminded me of Sufjan Steven's "Oh God, Where Are You Know?" I often need music to worship and to express what groans inside of me. I leave this song for your listening. Sufjan so wonderfully sings a lament for us to partake in. On behalf of the world, and behalf of our personal grievances, we turn to God in lamentation trusting to find hope time and time again.

 

 

Wednesday
Jul232014

#FaithFeminisms

Feminism, like faith, is not monolithic. 

Over the last few weeks a group of feminist on Twitter found each other and began dreaming. We are holy-resisters and hope-filled dreamers of faith. We are diverse in all the ways one could possibly hope for diversity. Some of us are evangelical, some liberal, and some radical. We all want to talk about feminism and faith. What began as a simple idea of a week of five blogs hoping to nuance faith and feminism conversations has turned into a hashtag movement #FaithFeminisms. Someone generously made a website for us www.faithfeminisms.com that not only amplifies our blogs, but people are able to add their faith and feminist blog to the conversation, too. This movement has caught the attention of Rachel Held Evans when she blogged this week "We need feminism..." Suey Park, activist who caught the medias attention this year, is also participating in the conversation (stay tuned for her post today and Friday). Voices of all sorts of feminists are making their thoughts known this week in what we are referring to as a flash mob movement on the internet. My spouse has given us one of his platforms that he created called "Thirty Seconds or Less" where we are all able to offer our actual voice to the conversation in a 30 second podcast. Everyday this week four to five podcasts are broadcast. Instead of just sharing about the project, let me share some of the voices.

 

While we did not plan this, we think it is providential that the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene took place during this week. To the first minister of the Gospel we dedicate this week to her.

From RCA minister, Reverend Adriene Thorne, listen to her 30 seconds:

"As the great granddaughter of a slave woman who loved God and believed in abundant life for all people, faith and feminism are intertwined for me.

With a mama and play mamas spoon feeding me faith like the grits and gravy I grew up on, I have to preach abundant life for women and girls in particular. God’s nurture is in women’s bodies around kitchen tables. God’s power is in women’s bodies around communion tables.

I thank God for Sarah, Hagar and Rebecca, for Eva, Hilda and Marilyn and their legacy of faith and feminism for my daughter."

 

Listen to 30 seconds from scholar Krista Dalton"

"You invite me to the table. 
You extend your hand and make space for me. 
You tell me you understand my feminine experience. 
You show me all the ways you’ve advocated for me. 

Yet, 
You forget or just don’t recognize
that when we both come to the table, we are not equal. 
The table has worked for you in ways it hasn’t for me. 
The table has always been yours. 

As long as you have the power to invite me to the table, the table has no room for me."

From Reverend Mihee Kim-Kort in the PC(USA):

"I look at Anna bouncing, reading, singing, and vibrating with an odd vitality and joy and beauty. My mother cooking, cleaning, buzzing around the house with endless energy. Both are bookends to my life, pulling and pushing me to work towards a world of love and justice.

Already I see the seemingly inconsequential coming after Anna, her voice, her body, her worth, and value. These insidious microaggressions need concise words to bring truth to light.

Being a feminist, Jesus or Christian or whatever, means joining in the work of something bigger than yourself, your blog, twitter, or social media, and sometimes that just means you need to get out of the way."

 

Austin Brown, Resident Director at Calvin College, she writes:

#FaithFeminisms has been the slowest conversion of my life. There was no flipping of a switch, no church service revelation, no falling to my knees in wonder. It was borne slowly, tumbling and kicking inside, peeking out to see if it’s safe, grasping and begging for air. The midwives of friends, authors, sisterhoods, mentors and preachers it has taken to help her live would form quite an extensive list- crisscrossing the country, reaching from heaven to earth.

It almost never was. There was too much of “Eve is the reason sin entered the world” and “Ham’s curse is the reason Africans were enslaved.” What is a girl to do knowing she begins curses with one hand and embodies them with the other?  There was nothing redeeming about my womanhood or my race in Scripture. Eurocentric depictions of the Divine didn’t help either. Sunday school Bibles, archeological documentaries, feature length films all created a white, male God. (Read more at the blog called "Loving Eve and Loving Ham")

I encourage you to head over to www.faithfeminisms.com and listen in on the conversation. Perhaps you identify as a feminist and have a piece that you would like included, please add your voice! Perhaps you are curious about our understanding of how feminist and faith could be connected, this conversation is for you! If you are on Twitter, check out #FaithFeminisms and glean the collective wisdom and stories.

 

Wednesday
Jul092014

Spiritual Vibrations

Inside the Grand Mosque in Muscat, OmanThe spiritual energy of a specific location I can sense pretty quickly.  Do you ever sit in a park in your town and wonder about the spiritual health of your neighborhood? I do, often. For me, New York City consistently spiritually vibrates. As a Quaker friend once said to me, there is a spiritual flow in NYC that many traditions plug into.

Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and people of various religious identities, and people of no religious identities, live and work together. On a day-to-day basis we, overall, coexist. Kippahs, hijabs, ashes and the like display our faith for the outside world to perhaps peak the curiosity of others.

I was in Brooklyn the other day and the mosque by my friend’s house was bustling with people. It is Ramadan after all. I was waiting in line at the bus stop when the evening call to prayer was being sung. I love reverently listening. The first time I heard the call to prayer was in Oman with RCA pastors. The call to prayer reminds me, a Christian, to pray. I will usually pray a simple and quiet prayer “God, thank you for making so many different kinds of people. Teach us how to live together in peace. Amen.” 

During Ramadan I ask my Muslim friends questions about their religious practices. “When do your kids start fasting? Do you have a favorite dish to break the meal in the evening? Is there a charity that you prefer to give to during this month? What does fasting teach you about God?” My friends and I have granted each other permission to be mutually curious. The questions are often returned during our holy days during Advent and Lent. “Why do you have ashes on your forward? What does fasting teach you about God? Why do you think they killed Jesus? Why does Easter give you hope?” The mutual questions ignite my soul. 

In the early Fall I feel the spiritual energy in New York City shifting toward our Jewish friends celebrating Yom Kippur and the high holy day. When I run along Riverside Park on the Hudson River I will see Jewish congregations praying. One of my Jewish friends told me that the river is where sins are cast off into the sea. I love that imagery, it’s baptismal to me.

On Ash Wednesday the spiritual energy of the City begins to shift toward Christians. It’s one of my favorite Christian days and it’s one of my favorite days to live in New York City. I walk on the subway with my ashes on my forehead and there I see police officers with ashes on her head standing by the door. I walk down Broadway and there are people in powerful suits with ashes on their forehead. New Yorkers being reminded of our mortality, that’s a powerful symbol in a powerful city.

This Sunday I am preaching on peace. I am reminded of the theologian Hans Kung who said “There will be no peace between the nations without peace between the religions.”  I am thinking of Jesus on the mountain in Matthew 5:9 which records Jesus as saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” I am not an expert in peacemaking, but I do think that there is something to be said for reverently holding each other’s traditions in prayer.  I’m not interested in approaching interfaith work with the lowest common denominator, though sometimes one needs to start there. I am interested in holding our differing theologies in complex tension. I am also interested in holding our common humanity in reverence and prayerful goodwill. Peacemaking seems to mean that we are honest about our personal beliefs while curiously conversing, and working with, our neighbors. I learned this from the RCA’s great history of interfaith work in the Arabian Peninsula.

Do you have stories of interfaith peacemaking? I am curious to hear stories of personal, and congregational, interfaith work.

Prayers of goodwill to each of you, and to our Muslim friends during their holy time of Ramadan.

Wednesday
Jun252014

Summer

Summer is beginning in New York City. In my world, in Manhattan, I see parishioners traveling to their beach homes in the Hamptons, Connecticut, or their forested destinations in Upstate New York. The prayers from our homeless community begin to change to something like this, "God, protect us from the heat. Provide us relief when there is no shade to hide under." They tell me that the heat of the summer is sometimes worse than the cold of the winter. The New York City Public Schools are winding down in the next week. Kids who are in prep schools have been out for a couple weeks and have already begun to pack for their summer camps. When I was in Michigan, summer camp meant a week away from home. In New York City it is common for kids to go to camp for four to seven weeks at a time. The heat has begun to creep into the City, but not like August. August can be unbearable here. Outdoor concerts in Central Park, and Prospect Park, have begun. I live in Washington Heights so in my barrio the streets are peppered with Dominican vendors selling flavored ice, mangos on a stick, and the sounds of bachata dancing from apartment buildings.

June and July are my busier months. I lead a church retreat at the Warwick Retreat Center that we just got back from. City folk breathing in the countryside, and glory of the night stars, is holy in and of itself. It’s Pride week in NYC and the Collegiate Churches participate in many activities. Tonight I’m leading a Pub Theology on the spirituality of the resistance of Stonewall to Queer theology. Then we turn the corner and it’s July. July begins a month of “solo pastoring” for me as my colleague is on vacation. Each week my colleague and I lead worship together, but starting in July it is just me preaching and leading. I find these weeks to be an incredible time of growth in my homiletics and ministry leadership. Come the second week of August I am quite ready for my vacation which I then take the rest of the month off and gear up to come back the first week of September.

While my work load becomes weightier, I will ensure that I have plenty of enjoyable summer experiences. I am most looking forward to my stack of summer reads. One reader of The 12 emailed me and suggested I read "Walk Two Moons" by Sharon Creech after reading my post on my travels to New Mexico this winter. That is now part of my summer reads and I appreciate the email from one of our readers! I am also looking forward to the newest summer music which for me includes Sam Smith, Mariah Carey, Phox, Lana Del Ray, and any new dance remix of some classics (I have a thing for Whitney Houston and can't get enough of her old jams). I have gotten into the habit of seeing a french film every couple of weeks at one of our various theatres and hope to continue that this summer. Just last week I saw Violette which is about Violette Ludoc and Simone de Beauvoir's writing relationship and the quest for freedom.

This post isn't overly theological, but it accurately represents the feelings of contentment and joy of being alive that I feel. In Brian McLaren's new book he says, "We want to be alive. To feel alive. Not just to exist but to thrive, to live our life, walk tall, breath free. We want to be less lonely, less exhausted, less conflicted or afraid. . . more awake, more grateful, more energized and purposeful." I feel that today. I look out the window and see the glory of the Hudson River staring back at me and feel the magic of New York City. Peter Mayer sings "everything is holy now." Yes, I see the Holy everywhere and today's post is dedicated to the celebration of life and I am filled with gratitude.

What is on your summer list? What books are you hoping to read? Any music, or movies, you are hoping to enjoy?

 

 

The Summer reading list