With Those Who Weep

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Yesterday was a historic day in our country. Wherever you may stand on the issue of same-sex marriage, the sheer gravity of the moment cannot be denied. As an American, as a Christian, and as a pastor who has performed a couple of same-sex unions, I was absolutely ecstatic. There were moments yesterday when I was overwhelmed almost to the point of tears thinking about all the people I love who are now afforded equal treatment and equal rights under the law. Seeing the outpour of emotions on social media was moving and profoundly hopeful for me.

But of course, it didn’t take long to begin to hear from some folks around the country who were less than thrilled about the decision. Those responses ranged the thoughtful (because even when I disagree with him, Russell Moore is always thoughtful) to the downright absurd (because Matt Walsh is always absurd). Sadly, most of the responses against the ruling came from prominent Christian leaders, most of whom can’t seem to fathom that anyone of faith would ever be able to celebrate this as a victory. To be sure, there were also many Christian leaders making statements in support and in celebration, but those don’t get quite the same coverage.

The struggle I feel now as we begin to process this new reality, is what it means for me as a pastor. I serve a small congregation in rural Florida (well, technically two—I’m also the stated supply preacher at the Presbyterian church the next town over). Not surprisingly, most of the folks this congregation tends to lean conservative, but that’s the not the way I should begin my description of them. Instead, I should say they are loving, kind, caring, thoughtful, and a joy to be around. These people truly feel like family and they have embraced us, especially our children, so much more deeply than we ever imagined. It has been a remarkable experience for which we continue to be unspeakably grateful.

But, it probably goes without saying, I know this decision will be a hard one for many people that I love to deal with, including many in this congregation. Some see this is an attack on traditional Christian values and yet another sign of our country’s unfortunate moral decay. While I don’t agree with this perspective at all, I understand it and I recognize how painful this moment must be for many.

The people I’m talking about are not hateful or bigoted. No one that I know is saying that we should “execute the homos,” and they would be just as appalled by that suggestion the rest of us are. But as loving, caring, and decent as they are, they are also likely in a state of mourning at this moment. Mourning the loss of the America that thought they knew.

I often struggle with my role as a pastor, particularly in a context such as this. I tend to lean on Paul’s command in Romans 12:15 to help define my pastoral identity: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Most days this is simple enough. Being a pastor means walking alongside people in their joy and in their sorrow; sharing in the most significant moments of their lives. And it is such a gift. Being able to officiate a wedding and then celebrate afterwards with the family is joy that is difficult to explain. And being able to sit and pray with a family after a loss, is an honor that cuts to the very core of my being. As a pastor I am often welcomed into moments to which most other people are not privy. We are graciously granted access to the most personal moments and experiences of people’s lives—their fears, their hopes, their joys, their struggles, their pain—and it’s an invitation I don’t take lightly.

But it’s easy in most of those situations because my emotional response matches the emotion of the moment. It’s easy to rejoice at a wedding, because (usually) everyone else is rejoicing, too. It’s easy to mourn at a funeral because others are mourning as well and part of my calling is to give them permission to mourn. But what’s the role of the pastor when her emotional reaction doesn’t necessarily capture the mood around her? Is public rejoicing at a time like this, in a context like this, tantamount to laughing during a funeral while everyone else is weeping?

I’m not so naïve as to assume that everyone in the congregations I serve will be upset, but I know that many will (and those are not will mostly rejoice in private). And I’m also not just talking about the churches I serve—I have plenty of other friends and family who feel similarly. But I am left wondering: What does it mean to weep with those who weep when all I want to do it rejoice? What is the proper pastoral role in this situation?

For starters, of course, I know I’m called to listen. I do a lot of that as a pastor. I know that just as when people mourn the loss of a loved one, my presence with them is far more important than anything I could ever say. But is that it? Is that the extent of my call in this situation?

A portrait of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, right hangs on a wall, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C., in the basement of Emanuel A.M.E. Church where the killing of the pastor and eight others occurred in a mass shooting. The congregation at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal swayed and sang, prayed and welcomed the world into their sanctuary on Sunday, holding the first worship service since a white gunman was accused of opening fire during a Bible study group, killing nine black church members. (AP Photo/David Goldman, Pool)

A portrait of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, right, hangs on a wall, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C., in the basement of Emanuel A.M.E. Church where the killing of the pastor and eight others occurred in a mass shooting. The congregation at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal swayed and sang, prayed and welcomed the world into their sanctuary on Sunday, holding the first worship service since a white gunman was accused of opening fire during a Bible study group, killing nine black church members. (AP Photo/David Goldman, Pool)

This question feels particularly pressing for me as I consider the life, and especially the death, of the man who was so beautifully eulogized by Pres. Obama yesterday. Rev. Clementa Pinckney followed in the tradition of many pastors who speak up for equality and justice, a tradition that is deeply embedded in the history of the AME Church (as Pres. Obama observed). No doubt, Rev. Pinckney understood his pastoral role to encompass some of the fire of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, who often spoke up for the cause of justice on behalf of the poor, the widow, the alien, and the orphan. In a very real way I feel that Rev. Pinckney’s life, ministry, and death are an indictment of my own. If all I’m doing is rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn, am I faithfully living into my pastoral call?

That’s the question that haunts me. What does it mean to be a pastor in times like this? Do I weep with those who weep, or should I be speaking out more in support of what I believe to be unabashedly good news—should I be rejoicing more vocally? Should I be speaking out to show that there are plenty of Christians who see this decision as a way for us to live more faithfully into our calls and who take the Bible seriously while also affirming same-sex marriage covenants?

What is the role of the pastor? When are we called to pick up the prophetic mantle and when are we supposed to listen in empathetic silence? And what if I lack empathy for a position that, while I recognize is not necessarily inherently hateful, does strike me as harmful and counter to the character of the God I worship? How do I listen to and mourn with someone whose position I not only fundamentally disagree with, but even struggle to fully understand? I don’t have a good answer to this question, and I don’t know that I ever will. I’ll likely continue to err on the side of weeping with those who weep for fear that my rejoicing may push people away and end important conversations. But I’ll also probably continue to lose sleep wondering what the hell I’m even doing as a pastor when I’m often silent about issues that matter for fear that I might offend people, or what business I have standing behind that pulpit week after week when people like Rev. Pinckney are murdered in their churches for being a prophetic force for justice and equality.

All in all, I feel like we took a huge step forward as a nation yesterday—I’m proud and I’m still a bit ecstatic. I just hope I can find the grace to live faithfully into my call as a pastor, whatever that might mean.


A Lament Unheard

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During the season of Lent our church took a detour from the normal lectionary cycle and focused our attention on the biblical book of Lamentations, which, to my mind, is the perfect book for Lent. For me it was an incredibly rewarding detour, and I hope some in our congregation felt the same way, but I’m not entirely certain about that. Preaching and reading Lamentations is tough. The book itself a series of five poems, the narrative world of which is set after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon.

The poems can be absolutely brutal. They are raw, often grotesque, overflowing with pain, anguish, desperation, and misery. And perhaps most difficult of all, particularly from a faith perspective, hope is almost entirely absent from its pages and God is completely silent.

The central figure in the first two poems is Daughter Zion, the personification of Jerusalem—that once great city that now lies in ruins. Over and over again in the poems she begs for someone to see her suffering—simply to see her and hear her. She laments that she has no one to comfort her, for “a comforter is far from me” (1:16). She even calls God out by name, perhaps hoping to get a whirlwind summit like Job. But the winds remain still—God never shows up.

In the past week or so Daughter Zion has been on my mind again. I think what we are seeing on the streets of Baltimore, and in many other places around the country, is what happens when laments go unseen and unheard. In her marvelous commentary on Lamentations, Kathleen O’Connor, Professor Emerita at Columbia Theological Seminary,  writes:

Pain kept from speech, pushed underground and denied, will turn and twist and tunnel like a ferret until it grows in those lightless spaces into a violent, unrecognizable monster. Whether in personal therapeutic or political terms, Lamentations invites us into healing by giving speech to pain. It offers us language, form, and the power of example…And if our personal pain needs no attention at present, Lamentations still calls us to heed to voices of suffering around us. It reminds us that wholeness and reconciliation—personal, national, and global—cannot occur without the articulation of suffering in the face of denial and injustice. It calls us to see.

This, I think, is what we are seeing in Baltimore and New York and Ferguson and Minneapolis and in so many places around the country. Laments unseen and unheard.

She goes on to suggest that what we need is a “theology of witness.” What she means is not only that we give voice to our own sufferings, but also that we listen for the voices of suffering and lament around us, particularly those voices that are routinely and dismissively ignored and suppressed. She goes on to quote from the powerful and difficult book Lament for a Son, where Nicholas Wolterstorff, grieving the death of his nineteen-year-old son says:

What I need from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

But coming close is far easier said than done. Sitting beside people on their mourning bench is difficult enough as it is, but it is particularly thorny when you see the world fundamentally differently than the other person. Or when they say there is a problem and you just don’t see it; or perhaps you refuse to see it.

This brings me to Project Implicit, which is a collaborative, multi-university research project whose stated mission is to “foster dissemination and application of implicit social cognition.” One of the ways they do this is by creating online tests, called Implicit Association Tests (IAT), that are designed to measure “attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report.” In other words, the researchers associated with this project are trying to get at what people think, often unconsciously, about things like race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

Today I took the Race IAT to see how I would score. The test itself is somewhat complicated to explain, but very simple to take (it only takes about ten minutes—you should try it!). The results you receive will tell you whether you have a preference for European-Americans over African-Americans, or vice versa, and how strong that preference is. These are my results:


“Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for European American compared to African American.”

So what do these results mean? Should I take this to mean that I am a terrible person—a nasty racist who secretly despises black people? Not exactly…

The point of the test is not to measure whether or not you are racist, but what implicit associations/biases you may have for a particular racial group, even if you yourself are largely unaware of those biases. After you take the test and before you receive your results you are also asked a series of questions to explicitly state whether or not you have a preference for one race over the other. Of course, I answered that I view both races equally—that I have no preference when it comes to race. And that is genuinely what I believe to be true about myself and how I try to carry myself.

And by most accounts I’m not racist at all. I honestly can’t remember ever being accused by anyone of being racist, or even of doing or saying something racist (which is different from saying I’ve never done or said anything racist—I’m certain I have). Let’s review the facts: I did “urban ministry” for several years, I’ve lived in a predominantly black neighborhood, I love hip hop, I’ve read just about everything James Cone has ever written, I used to worship (and work) at a church in Decatur that had a black Jesus in the front of the sanctuary (and a white Jesus in the back), I know that Malcolm X was actually pretty awesome (and not the violent hatemonger most white folks think he was), I’ve led and participated in many conversations about issues of racism and white privilege, I’ve been to a bunch of MLK prayer breakfasts, I listen to PostBourgie religiously, and, the ultimate proof that I can’t possibly be considered racist, I have black friends! I don’t mean to brag, but my non-racist bona fides are rather impeccable.

So, it seems that I have a choice to make. I can either lean on what I know to be true about myself, informed by the exquisite credentials listed above, and thus ignore the results of the IAT. I can write it off as a silly exercise that doesn’t actually tell me anything important about myself—this is just another pointless academic enterprise, the accuracy of which is likely on par with some stupid BuzzFeed quiz that tells me about my “Inner Potato.” Or instead I can choose to do the harder work of facing the reality of my implicit biases and how they might affect the way I interact with people and view the world around me—to whose laments I am able to truly listen and to whom I am able to come close.

The point of the test, and my reason for sharing it, is not to foment white guilt and blame all the issues of the world on white people and racism. Rather, what research like this demonstrates is that we all—every single one of us—carry biases with us at all times, of which we are largely unaware. Chances are you don’t consider yourself racist, but chances are even stronger that you do have similar biases. The problem is not so much with the biases and associations themselves, but when people, especially people with power and/or privilege, remain unaware, whether intentionally or unintentionally, of those biases and how they might affect their decision-making and their ability to see and hear the laments and the sufferings of those around us—particularly those who have been systematically shoved aside.

The most obvious example, and the one most in the spotlight right now, is how this affects policing.  But this is not just a police issue, this is our issue. We need to be willing to admit that we do have biases and that these biases significantly affect how we will relate to people, specifically people of color, and how we’ll respond when we hear yet another story of a black man dying at the hands of the police under mysterious circumstances.

But beyond that I hope that this awareness might also make us—that is, white people—a bit more willing to listen when people of color share their stories of pain, suffering, and lament without dismissing them as simply “playing the race card.” When stories like Freddie Gray and the ensuing protests begin to break we are so quick to repudiate their pain, condemn the (usually wildly exaggerated) violence, and are so unwilling to listen. As activist and organizer Deray McKesson said to Wolf Blitzer when he was asked if he would condemn the violence by some of the protestors, “I don’t have to condone it to understand it.” Understanding requires listening. Listening means coming close.

Perhaps if we are a bit more willing to admit and confront our own biases we will also be a bit more willing to listen and to understand and to come close. We are not asked to condone acts of violence, but simply to begin by listening. This is especially important if, as Dr. King suggested, “a riot is the language of the unheard,” and as Kathleen suggests, unheard laments easily mutate “into a violent, unrecognizable monster.”

Langston Hughes once famously asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” That poem ends abruptly with a stark shift in tone and a haunting question:

Or does it explode?

Today we might rephrase it to ask, “What happens to a lament unheard?” We need only to look at Baltimore for our answer.

Should death await us…

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) made headlines last week at its 221st General Assembly. At this weeklong gathering the body made a number of decisions, most of which are overshadowed by the two biggest issues: same-sex marriage and divestment. These are obviously watershed moments for the denomination. One publication described the decision on same-sex marriage as a “denomination-altering moment.” And it certainly is that.

I was not at GA, but I did watch a good bit of the live stream and I followed the conversations on Twitter rather closely. What fascinated me most was not so much that these things passed (I expected the same-sex overtures to pass and figured the divestment vote would be close — seven votes!), but that so much of the dialogue and debate, at least on Twitter, had to do with how people would view the church if these things passed and how many people we might lose. Tweet after tweet after tweet was eager to tell folks either about how the PC(USA) has already declined because of it’s stances on LGBTQ issues or suggested that this will be the nail in the church’s coffin (or even better, calling us the “denomination of demons“!). Others were quick to entreat folks to begin the exodus (also here and here). We even got hit with the obligatory farewell meme (see what you started, John Piper?). Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (whatever that is) was among the most obnoxious and vociferous. What others were merely suggesting Mark stated bluntly. “By overturning natural marriage the PCUSA is only accelerating its already fast-paced demise. It will become even smaller, whiter and older.” He continued, ” Only declining denominations reject historic Christian standards and in nearly every case that rejection reinforces the decline.” And the Blaze quoted him in a post called, “Will Embracing Gay Marriage Usher in the Death of Major Christian Denomination?” In other words, the sky was already falling and we Presbyterians just did a rain dance.

Interestingly, on the other side of the ideological divide were the folks who were encouraging the decision and celebrated its passage. Obviously many celebrated it as a victory for justice, equality, and inclusion, but many others were quick to point out — perhaps in response to the death-declarers — that this decision may in fact promote growth. Therefore, this is actually a wise decision for long term viability of the denomination. Carol Howard Merritt, for instance, penned an insightful piece all about how the PC(USA) can grow not in spite of these decisions, but because of them. Her reasons make sense, and she might even be right —I certainly hope she is — (she probably is, she’s super smart), but the whole debate about how this decision in particular might impact church membership got me a bit nauseated (not Carol’s piece, just the online conversations before the vote). This has never been how we are supposed to make decisions, especially decisions of this magnitude.

I’m not exactly a polity nerd, but there is at least one line from the Book of Order (which is half of our constitution, along with the Book of Confessions) that I am particularly fond of. F-1.0301 reads, in part, “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” This is perhaps the only question that should matter when deciding difficult issues. Are we entrusting ourselves and our church to God alone? Are we willing to be faithful to God even if it means the death of our church? The answer should be an unequivocal yes, and I believe the decisions made at GA bear that out.

I’m sure we didn’t get everything right this time. In fact, we probably got a lot wrong, or at least not quite right. We always do (ahem, total depravity). That’s why we do this every two years. But what is fundamental to the way we do church is our unwavering belief that we are able to listen to God better in community than alone. We affirm that when we get together like this, however imperfect our gatherings may be, we are better equipped to discern the voice and the movement of the Spirit among us. Again, this does not mean we will always be right or that our process is above reproach. But I think it does help remind us that this was a not rash or brazen decision. This was not the result of a bunch of elders getting swept away by moving stories and groupthink. It was the result of many years of Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders discussing, debating, praying, reading scripture, and genuinely and fervently seeking to be faithful to God alone. And I applaud the decision even if it means, in the words of a non-Presbyterian friend, that we have signed our advanced directive.

Thanks to Jesus’ speech to his disciples in the Mission Discourse of Matthew 10 I was able to preach yesterday morning on the power of fear and Jesus’ constant assurance that we have nothing to fear.

We have nothing to fear, y’all.

While I don’t believe God is done with our denomination I also don’t believe it matters all that much. God doesn’t need us. God has never needed us. But for some reason —grace — God chooses us and chooses to work in and through us. My hope is that God is using the PC(USA) and others to do a new thing and to speak a new word to our church and world. My deepest prayer is that this moment will become for us like Peter’s rooftop experience in Acts 10. That we will all be able to affirm together the words of God to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

The road ahead will surely be difficult, and we may not survive it. There are many, even in my own congregation, who feel deeply betrayed and further disillusioned by these decisions. I’m not sure if I am in a unique position or not, but I suppose I am in a bit of an awkward place as someone who celebrates these decisions, especially the decision to recognize and affirm same-sex marriage, yet serving a congregation of folks who are largely against it and feel a profound sense of hurt and grief. I’m still figuring what it means for me to a be a pastor in this context, and probably will be for some time. I hope I can serve these people I love dearly with grace and humility and that they are willing to be led and pastored by someone who may think differently.

But for now at least I rest on the assurance that we are entrusting the church to God alone, whatever risks we might be taking in the process. Should this be the beginning of our end, fine. Should death await us at the end of this journey, so be it. The church has never been called to survival. We are called to be faithful to God alone, while being guided by scripture, and to listen for how the Spirit is moving among us. The story of the church from its inception has been one of ever expanding circles of welcome. Today I rejoice that the Spirit has widened our circle yet again, come what may.