There is a universal secret, a uniform truth so many of us tuck between the religious things we read from notecards. (Secrets, secrets they’re no fun; they seem to weigh a metric ton.) What’s the secret?
So many of us feel like frauds.
On an average Sunday evening, I gather with a liturgical community in a sacred space rented from an evangelical, non-denominational, non-liturgical church. The bell rings, the cross processes down the aisle, and I cannot help but notice the elongated shadows of our sister church, haunting. I imagine the morning crowd, now at their evening home groups, or maybe at home with their families, or doing whatever it is they do on a Sunday evening. I fix their faces in my imagination, even as I bow to the passing brass cross. I imagine all those morning church folk, and as I look at the shadows between my sneakers, I see the scattered crumbs of their own fraud-feelings.
The morning folk–did they come hoping to put these secrets to death? Did they come hoping that fresh faith would somehow kill the nagging doubt or hypocrisy or abivilance? Perhaps not all, but certainly some. And the evening folk, are we any different?
Universal truths are universal for reason.
If you listen to the voices beyond the voices in any worship service, the internal echo of things we hear but don’t say, you’ll find the revenant. It’s Thomas, Peter, maybe even Judas. You know they are in you. You know you need an exorcism from the voices.
Lord, I’m not feeling any of this; help my unbelief.
On an average Sunday evening, though, there is a moment of mass exorcism. There is bread and wine. There is us—all in our counterfeit sainthood—confessing our saggy fraudulence together.
Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.
The bread is lifted; light streams through the baptismal window illuminating an eternal circle of grain. Eclipsing the sun, a corona of truth hems the host, driving every shadow of doubt back to hellfire. Broken, bread crumbs flit down to the chalice of wine. I enter the line, expecting something. (Who knows what?) I take and eat. I drink.
This is the stuff.
Even in my fitful faith, I sense the alchemy. Those crumbs, the smallest ones now soaked in blood, have the power to change me into something more than shadows. They have the power to change my neighbor, too. They have the power to meld the evening church folk and the morning church folk. This is the meal that turns frauds to family.
I took a month-long break to enjoy the end of summer, then came back yesterday with my first Tiny Letter installment in a month. Though I don’t generally repost the content in full here, today I am. We’re at a crossroads, a point of decision. This piece represents an invitation, especially to my white friends. Come along?
On the White Racists
It’s been a few days since the powder keg blew at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. The images made the internet rounds late Friday night, images of White Racists (some say “Nationalists,” but proper nouns have their purpose), unhooded but holding tiki torches. They gathered in Emancipation Park around a statue of Robert E. Lee, and they chanted slogans like, “Blood and soil!” and “One people, one nation, end immigration!”
They were ivory skinned. They were lamplit. They were up to no good. They were fueled by demonic lusts.
Saturday, the violence erupted, and by now, you’ve no doubt seen the footage. A Dodge Charger driven by a neo-Nazi mowed down counter protestors as if they were only blades of grass. A black man was beaten by another group of White Racists in a parking garage. You may have seen; you may have seen; you may have seen. The images were unrelenting.
All this violence came because some caucasians with a demonic ideology and a social media platform decided to reassert their power. Make no mistake, they wanted one thing: Make America White Again. They wanted to reassert their manifest destiny, to regain control of a country that was never theirs in the first place. These small men sought to justify, maybe even revere the land grab from the Native Americans, the years of slavery, of Jim Crow, of mass incarceration, of redlining.
The presidential response was anything but presidential. After a series of milk-toast tweets ignoring the racial component of Charlottesville and the passage of two days, President Trump spoke to the press and read a well-crafted statement in which he finally condemned racism. Then, yesterday afternoon, President Trump addressed reporters the way he so often does—with the grandstanding bluster of a bully. Answering the questions of the news media he’s deemed fake with gesticulating hands and a sour expression, he refused to speak clearly about race violence. He blamed the violence on both sides. He equivocated, said not all the people marching with the White Racists were bad people. And then, in the coup de gras of statements, he justified the protests, giving this slippery slope argument:
“[T]hose people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
It’s troubling, really, how he’s playing The Great Bait and Switch, muddling the questions with something less than junior-high logic. I suppose this is the art of the deal. But what’s more troubling is how many of my friends, both online and in my local context, say the same things.
“We shouldn’t erase history,” they say.
“Removing statues won’t change a thing,” they say.
“Where does it stop?” they say.
These are the wrong questions when it comes to rooting out the sin of racism. Particularly, with respect to the question of removing icons of racisms and slavery, “Where do we stop?” is a small-minded query. The right question is this: “Where do we start?”
Where Do We Start?
Today, I’d like to offer a few starting places for folks like me, by which I mean those of us who are white people of faith.
Start by opening your ears to the voices of your African American neighbors who’ve been warning us for years about the systemic racism in the world around us. They’ve told us to root it out, to eradicate it. They’ve warned us, said if we don’t, that racism will form and foment and become something more overt. To my brothers and sisters of color, let me be clear: You were right.
Start by confessing your own complicity. For example: it’s taken me too long to speak out against the monument to the Confederate soldiers in my own community, to call for its removal.
Start by opening your imagination to the meaning of the First Commandment, “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” For example: let’s be clear and say that we’ve worshipped too long at the altar of the god of racist supremacy and power for too long. And even if we haven’t worshipped at those altars, haven’t we turned a blind eye to that worship? Let’s tear down the icons, the statues. Let’s grind them to dust in our gristmills.
Start with true repentance. For example: let’s sit in the dust of those crumbled icons, those lamentable statues, maybe don a little sackcloth while we’re out it. Let’s mourn the ways the demonic religion of racism runs so thick in our family blood, the ways its DNA shows itself in the demonstrations in places like Charlottesville.
Start with peaceful but firm action. For example: let’s call the President to repentance. Let’s teach him how to say the easy thing: “tear down the high places, the altars where we’ve too long worshipped evil.” And if he won’t, let’s call him to accountability.
If you are practitioner of faith–particularly a person like me, white–it’s time to consider your response. You can sit quietly, yes. You can justify and equivocate if you’d like. You can unsubscribe from my newsletter, too; you can avoid confrontation. These will be the easy options. There is another option, though, one which incarnates the way of Jesus.
Be baptized with the tears of your repentance.
And rising from that baptism, act as God’s living sacrament, the embodiment of grace for the sake of your neighbor. Act as his agent.
A few years ago, I stumbled across the poem “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke. It’s a villanelle, a nineteen line poem characterized by rhyme and repetition. Roethke does something with the form, turns it into a sort of personal devotion, and when I read it for the first time, it seemed to work its way under my skin, got into my veins, did the thing any good drug does once it found the proper neural receptors.
This is your brain on poetry.
This spring, I spoke to a group of pastors in Kansas City. Before taking the stage, I sat in the greenroom, praying, light music playing over the speakers. A song began playing, and I recognized it two notes in (bass lines have a way of sticking with you; yes?). It was a deeper cut from Kurt Elling’s work. It was his musical interpretation of “The Waking,” and it seemed the perfect song for the moment.
“God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.”
~Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”
The week after that conference, I sat in the quiet of my office and penned this homage to Roethke’s “The Waking.” I hope you enjoy it.
Ages and Ages (The Poem for Redeemer, Kansas City)
We watch for signs of life lived youngly sweet
and take by this some memory of being
too small to know the sun’s burning color.
Imagine soft clover on your laughing
cheeks, as a child, and in another age
remember signs of life lived youngly sweet.
Until this waking to noon heat, were we
smiling with carefree children faces raised,
too small to know how the sun’s color burns?
Now we raise cups to living old concerns,
like knowing good, evil, not remembering
to watch for signs of life lived youngly sweet.
Of all the things that come from forever
our laughing child’s shining eyes were most pure,
innocent to how the sun’s color burns.
Age brings knowing that cannot be unknown,
like how lovers hold hands, walking, silvered,
Watching for signs of life lived youngly sweet
And lifting eyes to sun’s burning color.
I took the month of July off (more or less) because I needed a break, a vacation. If God took the seventh day off, couldn’t I practice his character by taking the seventh month off?
Okay, that’s a stretch. I ain’t that holy.
I’m scratching out words again today, but it’s really just a toe-back-in-the-water attempt to break my mini-sabbatical. I’m here to draw you in, to lure you to follow me elsewhere.
I wrote a poem a while back, a poem for my friend John Ray. I submitted that poem, “Dementia,” to a poetry contest for a magazine which shall not be named because I did not win, and if I’d dead honest, I’m still feeling as if I were just dumped by my crazy ex-girlfriend. Sure she’s nuts. We all knew it. My friends tried to warn me. But she was so pretty and artistic and promising and how could she dump me?
This is the wretched and regular feeling so many of us in the writing world feel. Rejection: it hacks our egos into tiny, buriable pieces.
I was lamenting how my poem managed to swindle a rejection letter from that magazine which shall not be named with my friend and fellow writer John Blase. He liked the poem, I suppose, and posted it on his site of stupendous poetry. (You really should spend some time there.) So today, I’m here to ask you to go there. And if you need a bit of a foretaste of my non-award winning poetry, read on:
He asked for the third time who organized this dinner,
who scheduled its courses of salad, the pizza
with whole basil leaves; who’d ever seen pizza
with whole leaves of basil? This He asked
for the third time.
His thumb and forefinger held a tremoring fork;
the back of his hand shivered, even in the blanket
of April’s warm humidity. Skin thin as purple onion peel
stretched over bird bones, everything forgetful of youth—
Trigger Warning: This is an overtly political piece, a piece about America, freedom, and the dead end of democracy. If you’re prone to fits of violence over political issues, feel free to move along.
It’s Independence Week, the week we celebrate our nation’s birth. It’s a festive week, a week to wallow in and indulge our freedoms–the freedom to grill meat, launch miniature missiles made in China, and overeat Aunt Maude’s famous apple pie. Freedom–ain’t it grand?
It’s an American tradition, this annual celebration. It’s Democracy’s birthday, an unabashed celebration of our freedoms of speech, assembly, and commercial enterprise. We light the candles on the cake of our free press, free elections, and free government provisions. We open the presents of the free market. Freedom, freedom, freedom–it’s the only thing that unifies us these days.
Yet, with all these freedoms, it seems our version of democracy has taken an ugly turn. It’s become more polarized, more vitriolic, perhaps more violent than ever. Yesterday, our President used his own freedoms to take the spotlight off the great history and tradition of our country; he used his freedoms to turn the spotlight toward himself. (Could anything be more American?) He kicked off this Independence week with a tweet that portrayed him as some sort of hero beating down the free press. It was an indefensible GIF.
Of course, the President is free to tweet this sort of violent propaganda (tweeting isn’t directly proscribed by the Constitution, see). What good is freedom, though, without the constraints of character, wisdom, and civility? How beautiful is the exercise of freedom if it induces some loon with an assault rifle (owned pursuant to his Second Amendment freedoms) to act on the President’s propaganda, to take aim at a reporter or two? When freedom slashes the jugular of common decency and social norms, when it lets civility bleed out on the kitchen floor, when it mocks death, freedom is an ugly thing.
The greatest freedom enjoyed by any citizen in any democracy is the freedom to constrain his own personal freedoms. The freedom to act in ways that serve and protect our neighbors, to restrain our speech for the sake of civil discourse, to govern our behavior to create liberty and justice for all (even the press)–these are the freedoms exercised by true statesmen. When we indulge every freedom, when we elevate personal agendas (or Twitter rants) over the collective good, when we wallow in self-indulgence, we undercut the foundational principles of our country’s democracy; we show ourselves to be anything but statesmen.
It’s Independence week, and I’m thinking about modern America. I’m afraid we’ve reached a dead end in this great experiment in democracy. It’s the dead end born of a freedom our founding father’s never contemplated–the freedom to wallow in our own narcissism. And if you’re prone to think this is an unfounded conclusion, allow me to offer this exhibit into evidence: the Twitter feed of President Donald J. Trump.