The Church Building Challenge

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At noon, I entered a church around the corner that was about to be auctioned. The building was small – a sanctuary, bathrooms, a couple of closets, a small fellowship room, kitchenette and what could be used an office. According to websites, the starting bid was around $100,000.

As I looked around the building, I noticed hymnals still in the pews. A floral arrangement decorated the front of the church. Tracts expressing a theology that seemed foreign to me were stacked in a wall display. Fliers still hung on bulletin boards. It was a “ghost church” – a church that was once alive but now was a merely a shell which no longer held life and energy.

It was sad to enter this church and look around at the pulpit knowing a pastor had preached his last sermon there, people were baptized in their pool behind the pulpit and that dreams of a new ministry may have dwindled. But I didn’t know their stories. Besides seeing the church’s Facebook page which hadn’t been updated since January 29 of this year, little was available about the recent life of the church.

I overheard the realtor handling the auction saying that no other churches had come forward as interested in purchasing the building and property. So I asked him a little more about this. He said that for some churches who were growing, this was not an ideal space – too small. It sounded like churches were looking for spaces that tapped into their potential.

After my tour around the building, I left before the auction itself could take place. Because of my departure, I never heard what had happened during the auction, if anyone bid or who would be moving into the former church.

This is another piece of the larger picture of churches and buildings. What are some recent churches you know that have moved from their building as their membership drastically changed? How were their buildings no longer serving their mission, vision and purpose? How much did it take for the congregation to arrive at the decision that the building no longer fit their identity or who God was calling them to be? And how much grieving did each of these churches need to endure when leaving behind this concrete part of their past while moving into the future courageously and with the wisdom of God?

When families grow, they purchase a home that fits their growing family. When a couple are empty nesters, they will often sell their house to move to something smaller. When a person is no longer able to climb the stairs in their homes, they move into a home which accommodates their accessibility. When our finances change, we move to residences that we can afford. So why aren’t the reasons a congregation possesses or releases a church building similar to the reasons an individual or family buys and sells a house or condominium?

While we are attached to our homes, I believe we are more attached to our church buildings. These are the places where the highest and lowest moments of our lives occur: weddings, funerals, baptisms, confirmations, etc. The reason we keep a building is not often practical or even spiritual but emotional. How do we transform our way of thinking so that churches look at church buildings as a means of doing ministry rather than our greatest achievement and acquisition of ministry?

The Frightful Mask of Prejudice on Halloween

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“He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”

Luke 14:12-14

Recently, I read a letter to Dear Prudence where the writer was complaining about giving candy to children from outside of their community.  The writer notes that the children are “clearly not from this neighborhood,” obviously referring to their skin color or the condition of their parent’s vehicles.  The attitude of the writer is one where he or she doesn’t want to be a social service agency and be a source of help for those less fortunate.

The attitude of exclusion doesn’t stop with the richest neighborhoods.  This story almost seems unreal until we read the comment section of the article or hear stories from our own communities where widespread exclusion is confirmed.

There is a middle-class neighborhood in the greater St. Louis area who is concerned with outsiders coming into the neighborhood to trick-or-treat.  In an online conversation, they plan how to stop people from coming inside the neighborhood.  Some will stand watch at the entrance to the subdivision as they don’t want minivans full of children coming to take their children’s candy.  One man commented on how he would take watch leading me to wonder if his biases would cause further pain and suffering on the “aliens in the land.”

People in this town often murmur in voices of concern about minorities “coming up the hill” to live in their neighborhoods.  Only miles away from this subdivision are communities of underprivileged people of color.  Some have reputations of being dangerous communities.  Often, families who live in apartment complexes do not have the opportunity to trick-or-treat, so they are forced to travel somewhere in order for their children to have the full childhood experience.

Which makes me wonder: who deserves our candy?  Who deserves safe neighborhoods to experience a happy childhood?

Is it the children we know?  Is it the children whose parents earn about as much as we do?  Is it the children whose skin looks similar to ours?  Is it the children who were born to families who could afford to purchase homes over $100,000?

People often say that Halloween is a holiday of the devil.  Frankly, I don’t believe that it’s for the reasons they think.  The Christ-like attitude of hospitality now is obliterated by attitudes of serve only those who are like me.

Luke 14:12-14 reminds us that our call is to invite those who are different.  It is not just an invitation but a mandate from Jesus the Christ to invite those who we wouldn’t normally include.  It’s stepping out in faith to interact with people whose lives are radically different from ours.

There was a time when Jesus himself felt the urge to deny a child well-being.  In Mark 7, Jesus is out of his element in Tyre, and a Syrophoenecian woman in the land asks him to heal her child of an unclean spirit.  He initially tells her that healing is for those who look and act like him.  But she challenges him, and Jesus changes his mind.  In this transformative experience for Jesus, he opens his mind to someone different, and the lives of Jesus, the woman and her child are blessed by the encounter.

Furthermore, Luke 18 notes that Jesus said “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them”.  He didn’t say “Let the children who look like me come to me.”  He didn’t request that these children have a certain economic background, and he didn’t exclude children of sinners and tax collectors.

On Halloween we have the opportunity to interact with the Christ in our midst as we extend radical hospitality to our neighbors and strangers.  Will Christ be allowed into our neighborhoods this Halloween?

A Life of Baby Steps

 

In the late 1970’s, there was a six-year-old girl who was afraid of everything. From going down slides to walking down stairs to taking an escalator to approaching dogs, life scared her and fed into her perpetual sense of unease.

Then one day, while sitting in a restaurant somewhere in the southwestern United States, this six-year-old’s tooth became loose. Not only did unease fill her body, but her heart started beating fast, she began to hyperventilate and her appetite ceased to exist.

Throughout the summer, panic came over her body before almost every meal and, often, out of nowhere. Life for this little girl changes from her semi-anxious state to deep fear and her yearning to leave her own body.

As time went on, this little girl had no idea how to articulate her panic to her family. “My stomach hurts,” she would say to her parents. “I don’t feel like eating tonight.” Her parents became more and more concerned as her tiny little frame continued to shrink. While she was able to eat small portions, her weight dropped. Doctors could only medicate the symptoms – usually some type of green liquid stomach medication. Eventually, her sleep was affected as well, waking up as early as 4:30 or 5 a.m. with the dry heaves and trembling body.

Panic and anxiety attacks were her norm. She never knew how to relax herself. She didn’t know how to escape this inner turmoil. But even though her body was ridden with panic and anxiety, she missed a total of a half a day of school from her illness. She knew how to live with anxiety and panic disorders.

For many years, no one ever knew about this…

This is my story.

***

Granted, it’s been well over 30 years since my first attack. I’ve learned how to live and function as needed with these disorders. Yet, life has not been easy. I never knew how to articulate myself to my family, and I often lived in a state of deep discomfort. It’s taken many baby steps to do the small tasks many people have no problem to undertake.

As I like to say: one small step for a human is a giant leap for my kind.

I’ve been fortunate to have been able to adapt to my mental health issues. Panic and anxiety do not hamper my job, but my relationship with these mental health issues continues to be a lifelong journey.

In my case, I’m blessed. It rarely, if ever, holds me back. I suppose having to live with these conditions as a small child afforded me the opportunity to adapt. Granted, I still have problems driving over huge bridges (like the Sunshine Skyway in Florida). Unlike most of you reading this, I must take baby steps in order to feel comfortable undertaking certain activities. Yes, this makes me quirky, but aren’t we all?

I never plan on riding a roller coaster. Thinking about skydiving makes my palms sweat. But these are activities that I never have to do. While I have minimal problems flying domestically, taking a flight over to Europe may require me to learn how to relax myself on the eight to ten hour flight. I still plan on taking this trip because my desire to live a full life in the face of these struggles is my goal and my hope.

Even though I’ve faced these issues, I love to take on projects, and panic and anxiety have never held me back from much. I can lead organizations, speak in public and be successful in whatever I choose to achieve. I do think in accepting a lifestyle of baby steps and living a full life with panic and anxiety disorders has made me the person I am today. I have become a person of grace and understanding. I know that I am never defined by this one weakness. But just like everyone has one or two burdens to bear in their lives, this is mine.

Unfortunately, there are loved-ones of ours who have half-lives because of mental health issues. There are people who rarely leave their homes and are unable to work. How can we make our systemic health care issues more manageable for everyone?

Keeping our silence is isolating. I kept a small piece of Dramamine with me when I was in high school, just in case I felt a panic attack coming on. My friends never knew. Only a few in my family were aware of my struggle. The first time I admitted it to a friend, I was 19 years old. The first time I met someone else who had panic attacks as a child, I was 28 years old. It was an illuminating moment to realize that I was not the only person to struggle with childhood anxiety and panic. It also made me realize that this is an illness that needs more attention. I thank friends of mine who have gone public about their mental health issues. Their courage to tell their story is what leads me to write this post today.

There is huge amounts of shame talking about this. I’ll say it – I’m a total overachiever, and I care what others think. I never want to admit that I have any sort of life weakness. As I type this, I feel extremely vulnerable and am second-guessing this post. But this is no longer just about me…

Today I decided to end the silence to help young people struggling with these issues. Children should never have to struggle in silence. The stigma is decreasing, and more help is available than when I was a six-year-old child. Granted, I’m sure some people may be shocked to read my story. But I felt that my silence only continues to feed the childhood struggle with mental health issues.

At six-years-old, I wish that I could have articulated my struggle. I wish I could have told people the issues I faced. I wish that I could have been bolder throughout the years and become an advocate for childhood mental illness. Today, I feel like I’m taking the first step in this advocacy. Will you join me to stand up for the children who can’t articulate this struggle? If you are a parent or guardian of a child who exhibits symptoms of anxiety, how can you help your child name her or his issues?

Finally, I am grateful for the Biblical witness of Mary Magdalene. As a woman with seven demons, her life was not over. Jesus gave her the chance to be the first person to share the good news of the resurrection. No matter if was panic disorder, anxiety attacks, depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, Jesus still called her to be a leader in the early church. Likewise, there is a future for all people who struggle with any type of mental health issues, including panic and anxiety disorder. Let us find the peace and healing power of Christ to move forward, knowing that the Divine is with us as we take our baby steps.

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False Church Marketing

I’ve received multiple maimagerketing pieces from a church expansion in my area.  The church prides itself on welcoming people just as they are – no matter who they are.  They want to get to know their visitors’ authentic selves.

Do they really?

So I went to their website and noticed quite a few things that communicates otherwise: sermons that consider being gay a sin… messages that state that living together is wrong… women prohibited from certain leadership roles.

To me, this doesn’t affirm everyone like it says in their marketing pieces.

This is no different than other large churches in our area.  “Come as you are,” they tell us.  But when it comes down to it, their theology is set in stone and not even God Herself could change it.

Listen, I think there’s a good chance that all churches stretch the truth to get people to visit.  But when you tell people that they are welcome like they are and then send various messages that say otherwise, then that is false marketing.  You are not welcome as you are… you are welcome as the person God will transform you to be.

I’m not saying that everyone in our churches will agree with us or like us.  But we deserve to come to a church without feeling spiritual stones being thrown at us- especially when we think the stones won’t be thrown.

What if you could find a church that would welcome you no matter who you love or how you love?  What if you could find a church that would welcome you no matter what your family may look like – even if it means two unmarried adults raising their beautiful children?  What if you could find a church that would want you to be a leader even if you are female?  What if you could find a church that affirms your doubts and allows you to struggle with your agnosticism or even atheism publicly?  Isn’t that worth just as much as smoothies in the middle of worship or a band with hip music?

Wearing blue jeans or coming into church with uncombed hair doesn’t really affirm your disarray.  Celebrating a God that loves your soul just as it is right now – in all its chaos – is worth everything.

In the meantime, I would ask the churches who want gay people to change their sexual orientation, or who shake a finger at couples who intentionally and thoughtfully live together before marriage, or who don’t allow half of the population to hold leadership roles to say so in their marketing.  Stop lying.  Stop bearing false witness to yourselves.  Be real.  Be authentic.  Say it like it is.

The Church in Perimenopause

By Ed Uthman from Houston, TX, USA (Human Egg Uploaded by CFCF) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I constantly read articles on the current status of the Church. Many believe that the Church (or at least Mainline Protestantism) is dying. Others are waiting for its resurrection or see it’s resuscitation happening in front of us. Everyone has an opinion on at what point of the life cycle Mainline Protestantism or all of Christianity exists.

I believe the church is entering its state of perimenopause.

Being a woman who is around middle age and experiencing the slow onset of symptoms, I’ll admit that I may be projecting some of my exciting life onto the current state of Christianity. But the more I read symptoms, the more I believe the Church is in perimenopause – the full-fledged middle-aged transitional period of ups and downs. And, yes, this means that if the Church is the Bride of Christ, then Christ’s bride is going through “the change.”

We’re hot and cold. Do you ever notice how some weeks church attendance is low and other Sundays attendance is up? How come some events are well attended and others are not? The hot flashes of Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve services give us hope and passion that maybe we will have connected with a larger audience, and then the following Sundays church attendance has cooled down to its normal state (or slightly lower). Nothing is truly consistent. Perimenopause is a time of riding the ebb and flow of hormonal waves. As leaders of churches, we ride the swings of highs and lows. Bring along a fan and a jacket because we won’t know what we’ll need that Sunday.

Fertility exists in a different state. We like to think of fertility being a numbers game – more children, more young families, bigger attendance, etc. But fertility isn’t what it was in our 20’s or 30’s, and fertility in churches isn’t what it was in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Fertility in the second-act church includes more quality time with our smaller congregations, heightened online presence and outside of the box thinking. As middle-aged women, we do not intend to stop creating even when physical birth is not an option. Likewise, the Church shouldn’t give up on its process of creation and birthing new programs.

Just like perimenopause, the life of the Church is not over. Instead, the Church has now reached middle age. The Church is not dying – – far from it. When those of us who are women realize that this change is upon us, we often think our lives are over, that we’re “dried up.” Nonsense! A reimagined act two is about to begin. What does that new stage of our life look like? How will we be vital with our physical bodies or our church body looking different? We are all still so full of life, and whether we read this as middle aged women, as church leaders or as congregations. Now is the time to find those new techniques in vitality which will remind us that we’re still very much alive and ready to listen for where God is calling us in this era of our lives.

Whether it’s the story of the resurrection, the fertility stories of Sarah or Elizabeth or our 45-year-old friend’s new hobbies or life activities, let’s remember that life isn’t over for us as middle-aged individuals or as churches finding our second wind.

Butterflies Fly Tomorrow

By US National Park Service emloyee (nps.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This was a poem I wrote on September 18, 2001.  Prayers for all of those still affected by this horrible day in our history.

Butterflies dance round flowers’ bloom
And spring turns into summer warmth.
The boys run up and down the beach
As sun beams set on Monday’s eve.

To sleep, to travel to the morn,
And as we get to sun’s slow rise
The day is born – a stillborn birth
For not to see the livelong day.

The flames put out the clearest skies
And soot to cover cleanest souls.
To march away from death’s abode,
A funeral’s march across the bridge.

The bride today has lost her groom,
In gloom she stands among the wreck,
She sings a song of lonely woes,
He hears her song but not from earth.

And turning back to see the place
Where Satan’s hand grasped many hearts
No fear, God’s touch now wipes away
The dust, the anger from their souls.

And as the night of death’s stale breath
Turns into day, a new sun’s here.
And butterflies roam with shadowed wings
Their flower’s gone, they fly away.

Ending the Checklist Checkup

By christopherharte This site also listed by request [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier today, an interview with Jennifer Aniston was broadcasted on the Today Show. She stated to Carson Daly:

“It’s always such an issue of ‘are you married yet… have you had your babies yet?’ It’s just constant… I don’t have this sort of checklist of things that have to be done, and … if they’re not checked, then I’ve failed some part of my feminism or my being a woman or my worth and my value as a woman because I haven’t,.. birthed a child… I’ve birthed a lot of things, and I feel like I’ve mothered many things.  And I don’t think it’s fair to put that pressure on people.”

When interviewing Gloria Steinem back in February, she stated “Being in the public eye, us women come up against this, that our value and worth is dependent on our marital status and or if we’ve procreated.”

It’s not just people in the public eye, Jennifer.

I remember the pressure that starts somewhere around 21 years old. Who are you dating. When are you going to get engaged. Are you planning on having children soon?

Could we please have a little time to figure out what we want?  In fact, can I have a lifetime to figure out my life?

Immediately after college, I ran into the mom of a classmate from grade school. Her son was getting married and “achieved” the privileged position of having his engagement in the local paper. She then inquires “so… when will your picture be in the paper?”

See. No pressure.

Over the years, I’d catch up with high school and college friends after a few months. One of the first things out of their mouths was always “Are you dating anyone?”

I’m really not sure if they were trying to make casual conversation, if they really cared about me or if they were seeing how far along I was in the checklist.

I would grade my life an A on life’s wilderness and a D on life’s checklist.  My life has been about the journey, the people I’ve encountered and the experiences I’ve embraced.  I’ve experienced great things like receiving a master degree, having a one-act play staged, writing for religious sites, living in various areas in this country and being ordained.  But according to the orthodox life checklist of marriage, babies and house, I have accomplished little.

So here I am asking you today.

Please. Pause.

Think before asking single people about their dating lives. If the non-married friend feels like sharing with you, you will know. You’ll may see photos of the new couples on social media. You may hear a former singleton ask if they can bring a date to your party. If the relationship is substantial, you will undoubtedly hear about it.

After a couple is dating for a while, think before asking them when they are getting engaged. Stop making comments along the lines of “When are we going to hear wedding bells” and “Let me know when the date is set.” They may not know and may not be in the place of their relationship to discuss this level of commitment. But all of us in relationships can tell you this: it’s rarely anyone else’s business. It’s between God and the two people who are considering sharing a life-long covenant.  Please pause before asking a divorced friend if she or he is dating again.

After the engagement happens, it’s understandable to wonder when someone will set the date. Some people choose to remain engaged for a longer period of time. Please rethink your comments to the engaged person on the length of their engagement. Maybe they’re waiting until a family crisis is over or until they’ve saved enough money. But they may not feeling like they need to offer an explanation to why the wedding has not happened up until this point.

Once the couple is married, reconsider before asking them when they will have children. Deciding to have a family is a huge decision. It’s not a choice that two people should take lightly. Having children is expensive and has the potential of requiring one person in the relationship to place their career on hold. Furthermore, the couple may be having issues with infertility or other reproductive losses, and they do not need you to remind them of what they don’t have in their lives.

And then, finally, pause before asking when the next child will come along. One child may be enough for a couple. As I mentioned maybe the couple is having fertility issues. Again, if and when the second, third, fourth or seventh child is on its way, they will tell you.

So why can’t we encourage one another from our different life paths? Why must we force people onto a specific life checklist? Right now, is there a piece of you that wants to make the person feel bad for not “completing the list?” Or are you genuinely concerned about the life of the person? Instead, would you be willing ask them how they are doing, what is new in their life or inquire about a hobby/job/etc. with which they are already involved?

There are certainly friendships where asking these questions are normal for the relationships – you are close and talk about many intimate life details.  But if you rarely talk with a friend, why would you ask them so many invasive questions?

I know I’ve asked the invasive questions, and I’m truly sorry that I did. Sometime, I was uncomfortable of where I was on my journey, and asking the question was my attempt to work through my own insecurity. One time after being asked “are you dating someone” for the billionth time by a good friend from college, I asked her “when are you starting a family.” (Maybe because I was tired of being asked the question by this friend.) She got quiet and said to me, “we’re trying.”

From that encounter I realized that these questions are sacred ones, and we ask them with great care.  Whether it’s extended singlehood, divorce, finances, challenging marriages or infertility, we all encounter struggles in life.

I remember the Genesis story of Rachel, waiting years before being able to marry Jacob, and then struggling with infertility. She watched her sister get married and have children with the man she loved, and had to patiently wait for the time when it was right for her to “complete the list.” And then there was Hannah in 1 Samuel, struggling with the shame she received from Peninnah because of infertility.

Questions like these which seem harmless can bring shame and embarrassment to our friends or acquaintances. Let’s stop the exhausting shaming inquiries. And let’s focus on the beautiful small moments of life.

Baptism by Ice

Yesterday, I was baptized by ice.

Yes, I performed this “remembering my baptism” ritual myself. As the frigid waters ran down my head, face and back, I tried to focus my attention on the hope that my actions would somehow point to a greater cause.

But I couldn’t help it. I still focused on how cold the water was as it ran down my body.

When I first saw this fundraiser and awareness, I thought it was a bit gimmicky. Dumping a bunch of water on our heads: who does this help? Are we talking enough about the disease as we film these videos? Or are people just dumping water on their heads without giving a care to this horrible illness?

And then my little sister nominated me. I couldn’t escape the ritual.

As I continually watched videos of friends and strangers taking part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, I realized that icy water and a cause are drawing all sorts of people together. We are no longer individuals but connected by this ritual of pouring a bucket of ice and water over our heads in the name of stopping an illness. From Robert Downey, Jr. to Oprah to Tom Cruise, from the child heading into kindergarten to the retiree in their 70’s, and from the famous actor to the local church pastor, we join together to take part in a common ritual and cause.

This ritual became more than a gimmick. It became more than a dare and more than a simple yet widespread fundraiser.

For me, it was a chance to remember my baptism.

As water is poured on our heads or as our whole bodies are immersed in a pool, we experience that same type of connection to others in our faith. That is baptism. As humans and as Christians, we are not alone in this messy life. In the ritual of baptism, we are reminded of grace in community. As we watch a small child or teen or adult experiencing the trickling water across their foreheads, we remember whose child we are. Our messiness as humans continues well after our baptisms but the water will always remind us that God’s grace is present with us as we abide with God and community.

So as we watch our next friend or favorite sports team dump a bucket of icy water as they stand in the warm summer sun, let us remember our connection to the greater Church, our connection to those who struggle each day with the degenerative illness of ALS, and our greater connection to all of humanity.

And let us remember our baptism.

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Shedding My White Naiveté

St. Louis – Maps of racial and ethnic divisions in US cities, inspired by http://www.radicalcartography.net/index.html?chicagodots (Bill Rankin’s map of Chicago), updated for Census 2010. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents. Data from Census 2010. Base map © OpenStreetMap, CC-BY-SA Map of By Eric Fischer (Flickr: Race and ethnicity 2010: St. Louis) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I am white.

I’m not sure that lends me to give my opinions on what is going on in Ferguson, MO.  Yet by living in the St. Louis area throughout my entire childhood and having conversations about race and reconciliation inside and outside of seminary classrooms, I have some passionate thoughts on the subject.

If you live in the St. Louis area as I did in my childhood and throughout college and seminary, you notice that many areas are either white or black.  While there are a few integrated communities, it seems though each race has their designated space to live.

My first residence was in East St. Louis for the first three months of my life.  My parents moved closer to my dad’s work in Belleville.  My grandparents, who lived in my first residence, stayed there for another decade.  Based on what I remember when visiting them, they may have been the only or one of the few Caucasian families still in their neighborhood.

I remember people often talked about this fear that the people of East St. Louis were going to “move up the hill” to Belleville.  People continued and still continue to move farther away from Belleville’s West End because of this fear.

I’m guessing other areas of St. Louis experienced white flight similar to this.  Is it because people assumed racial minority equaled dangerous?  Or did people continue to hold on to their racism from the 1960’s?

When I entered seminary in my thirties, my friends of color would talk about their fears of living in Webster Groves.  I couldn’t understand.  To me, Webster Groves was this safe suburban community filled with large homes and prestigious schools.

But that wasn’t the experience of my friends.  One told me “I couldn’t go running at night.  I just can’t do that – someone will think I did something wrong.”  She told me that our black classmates and friends feel that they would be pulled over by police based upon the color of their skin.  And then she said something to me that really opened my eyes: “I can’t fully be a whole person in Webster Groves.”

When you live in privileged areas, only some people are given the rights of being made in God’s image.  Others have to embrace a lesser form of personhood.

Hearing the words “white privilege” for the first time made me completely uncomfortable.  As a woman I don’t feel extremely privileged.  Sure, I may not be as privileged as another white person based on my gender or socioeconomic group.  There are times that being a woman does not make life easy – especially when it has to do with bodily safety.

But I am privileged beyond what I will ever realize.

I can drive in suburbs and never wonder if I will be pulled over because of my skin color.  I will be treated with greater respect at stores.  People will not assume I will cause trouble because I am white.

Some time later, I took a class on race and reconciliation.  There was one day where the conversation became extremely heated.  The pain of what was happening in predominantly black neighborhoods and the discrimination to our sisters and brothers all over St. Louis was expressed very explicitly that day.

That day still remains at the forefront of my memory, especially when watching these events unfold in Ferguson.  I recognize the pain as many march on the streets.

From all of these conversations, it was like I took the “red pill” in the movie The Matrix.  I can’t unsee the systemic racism that exists in our communities.  The flame of justice and peace that was ignited in seminary continues to burn brighter within my soul as I watch news reports of North St. Louis County.

All I can assume is that these acts of protests, riots and looting stem from this deep systemic pain.  As a white person, I can’t accurately represent their pain.  But from the gift of many conversations, I know it’s there, and they have every right to voice their deep anguish.  When people face discrimination, violence, a disproportionate number of incarcerations, lack of quality education programs as well as adequately-paid employment options, food and basic needs, there’s less hope in their communities.

As a Caucasian, I can tell you that we don’t experience what minorities and marginalized people experience.  All we can do is try our best to point to injustices that linger in our communities.

What I’m writing here is intended for a primarily white audience — to share my story of privilege awareness.  As Caucasians need to start to do our best to see it from a different angle… not from our comfy suburban coves or up on hills away from “those people.”

When a family of color moves into our neighborhood, let’s not contemplate moving to a “whiter” area.  Let’s invite our neighbors over for coffee or dinner and begin to build the relationships.  When you see the looting on TV, don’t just focus on that one piece of the situation.  Instead, focus your eyes on the people who are trying to pray over the communities and lead communities to peace.  Listen for the people who are trying to bring all sides together for dialogue, and join those conversations.  Notice the people who are trying to stop looters and clean up the messes a few hands have made.

And let’s spend some time with our friends of various background.  Maybe we’ll hear the deep pain that resides within them from discrimination.

These are baby steps, but we need to start somewhere.

I believe it was a matter of time before this happened to a community in St. Louis.  The people of color in St. Louis have been living in pain that many of us will never understand in our lifetimes.  As a white person, I don’t know how to support them as I should, and I know I will fall short.

I will continue to make mistakes.  You will continue to make mistakes.  We’re human.  But how can we be better the next time?

When we misspeak and return to our privileged ways, we need to stand back up and continue to try to bring about God’s kingdom of peace and justice.

And I will say this: I don’t want to hear that the people who are expressing their anguish should be “whipped,” and please stop calling them “those people.”  They are part of all of us – part of the Body of Christ, part of God’s creation.  No matter what our color, we’re made in God’s image.

Yesterday, the lectionary text was Jesus encountering the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15).  Her ethnicity and set of beliefs led Jesus to group her with the “other.”  She called Jesus out on his moment of discrimination, and he changed his view of her and his process of ministry to those outside of the Jewish faith.

Let’s be like Jesus, the one who taught us how to set aside our prejudices and love our neighbors unconditionally.

 

 

Robin Williams, What Dreams May Come and Psalm 139

Robin Williams. By John J. Kruzel/American Forces Press Service (Americasupportsyou.mil article) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Like many of you right now, I’m processing the death of actor Robin Williams.  His comedic timing and infectious energy permeated our hearts.  Reading many status updates in the past two hours, I see that this one death has left a very large hole in our culture.

It breaks my heart that someone who brought joy to thousands of others has endured a silent struggle with mental health issues.

In remembering his life, we tend to recall lighter comedies like Aladdin or Mrs. Doubtfire or significant mentor roles like Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society or Sean McGuire in Good Will Hunting, overlooking some of Robin’s performances in lesser known roles.

In 1998, Robin Williams led the cast of What Dreams May Come, a feature film about a man who risks his soul to rescue his wife, Annie.  His character loses both children to a car accident, and then Chris himself dies in a similar manner. His wife cannot escape her depression.  She commits suicide to escape her life of pain.

On the other side of heaven, he hears that his wife decided to take her own life and that she is confined to hell.  Determined to be reunited and rescue her from her self-imposed eternal damnation, Chris sets out to explore each layer of heaven and hell to find her.

He uses every bit of his afterlife energy, and in her own Sheol, a shadow-filled underworld, he finds her.

Many in our society believe that people who kill themselves bring upon themselves eternal damnation or a self-imposed confinement to hell.  Yet I believe that God is much like Chris in What Dreams May Come: searching for us, sitting with us in Sheol and helping us find a way out.  God knows that mental illness is just that: an illness.  And God never abandons us no matter what illness and no matter if we are barely thriving on this earth or barely existing in the afterlife.  God’s pursuing love is chasing us on every level of the afterlife to help lead us to heaven.

Psalm 139:7-12 says the following:

“Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.”

And that’s where I believe Robin Williams is: with God.  That’s where I believe all people who commit suicide are.  There is no afterlife hell for people who struggle with mental illness and commit suicide.  God’s grace is bigger than any condemnation or judgment.  God knows of Robin’ pain, and God is doing everything that God can do to be with him right now – from Sheol to heaven and everywhere in between.

Many people including some of you reading may be contemplating suicide because the pain feels too great.  However, there is help and hope if you struggle with depression or other mental illness.  Your life is valuable to many people.  Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or call (800) 273-TALK (8255).