Hearing #BlackLivesMatter in the Psalms


It was truly the last place I expected to find something like this, but tonight as I was reading Psalm 146 to the community gathered for worship, my mind starting flashing to names and stories of victims of police violence and voices of the Black Lives Matter movement speaking out against it.

Listen to this:

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as love as I live; I will sing praises to my God as long as I have my being.

Ta-Nehisi Coates says in his new (and game-changing) book Between the World and Me, he tells his son about the importance of his body — how his body is really the only thing he has in this world. “I will sing praises to God as long as I have my being,” or as long as I have my body, my agency.

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.

Next, the departing breath and Eric Garner came to mind. The repetition of “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Over and over again, while his breath not only departed him, but was forced from him, and on that very day, every plan he had perished.

The Lord sets the prisoner free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.

I think of Freddie Gray and his rough ride around the city of Baltimore, while bound in handcuffs. I think of Sandra Bland, violently arrested after a routine traffic stop and found dead in her cell.

The Lord watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the orphan

And then images of the thousands of refugees fleeing Syria pour in. Families leaving home looking for a better life — for any life at all. Warsan Shire writes, “no one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark.” What a powerful reminder to those of us who live with the privilege of never having to flee the mouth of a shark.

The way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

This is where it falls off the rails for me. I know that the Christian story ends with redemption and life overcoming suffering and death. But lately it just seems like the wicked will always find a way to get on a Sunday morning talk show and blame Obama for invading Iraq.

It seems so often that the wicked always win. That the perpetrator always gets away and that justice is so far from present.

And yet, this is where our subversive hope lies. Remember the Christian faith as a whole, started when a group of oppressed people refused to defer to the Empire. They refused to give up hope that a different future was possible. And then, they went out and lived like this subversive hope made a difference. They refused to defer to empire. They did the daily hard work of telling the story of resistance and hope to another generation.

This is where movements like #SayHerName come in. Tell the stories. Say the names. When we continue to tell these stories and we continue to live, day-by-day, into this subversive reality where the wicked are brought to ruin in our neighborhoods and our communities, then soon and very soon, we will find that there is no place for wickedness and everything said earlier in this Psalm will be true.

This is where the spirit of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and the countless others will be remembered. And we will live deeper and deeper into a wicked-less future.

Cheers,
Eric

#SyrophoenicianLivesMatter: A Sermon on Race + Mark 7:24-37

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace + peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

When I was in high school, I had a friend named Paul. Paul was one of the only black kids in our school. Growing up in Fargo, diversity wasn’t exactly a strong suit. You had Norwegians, Swedes, and a couple German families who moved to town to stir things up a bit, but that was about it. Then you had Paul. One afternoon our school had a basketball game about an hour away, so a bunch of us non-basketball types made the drive to watch. In the middle of the second quarter, the student’s section across from ours started chanting something. We couldn’t figure out what they were saying at first. But whenever Paul was out on the floor, whole sections of the bleachers, were chanting, “Go pick cot-ton. *clap-clap -clapclapclap”

It was one of those feelings that just made your stomach sink. It was like something out of a movie. I’ll never forget that feeling. It was equal parts shock, disappointment, and confusion. How could this still be a thing that people cheered?

As I’ve watched all of the news stories unfold over the last year, and heard more names added to list of victims – Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland – that same sinking feeling comes up more and more often. Not only have we not learned lessons from centuries of racism, but we’re not even open to listening and conversation in the same way we perhaps once were. When we cut ourselves off from listening to people who are different from us, we also cut off our ability to feel compassion and empathy.

But we are not nearly the first to experience these things.

In Mark 7, Jesus goes away to the region of Tyre, which is far, far away from Jewish territory. Jesus is firmly in Gentile land now. He wants to lay low. But there’s a woman who notices. She has a daughter who is in need of healing and she begs Jesus to heal her. And the way Jesus responds leaves him almost unrecognizable to us. He says, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

You can imagine the scene when Jesus says that. The record screeches to a halt and everyone stands back in astonishment. Did Jesus really say that? Dogs back then were not kept as pets. Dogs were feral scavengers back then. This is a pretty major insult.

But notice how the Syrophoenician woman responds.

She doesn’t puff up preparing to attack. But she doesn’t shrink away either. She stands on her holy ground and says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Notice what happens here. Jesus doesn’t puff up. And he doesn’t shrink. He listens. He considers. And he repents. Remember repenting simply means turning to go in a new direction. Jesus repents here. Initially he dismisses her outright, but after listening to her, he heals her daughter, and blesses her on her way.

Mark then pairs this story with Jesus healing a deaf man. He takes the man in private, makes some combination of touching and spitting and commands his ears to “Ephphatha!” — which means “be opened.” And he can hear. Now why is it important that these two stories are paired together?

Because they are both fundamentally about Jesus giving us a model for how to listen and respond when someone is in need, and then he shows his power to open that which once was closed and free that which once was bound.

This morning, all across the country, congregations from all faith traditions are wrestling with the reality of racism in our world. Racism is that which closes us off to each other and binds us from loving our neighbor in the way Jesus calls us. And it affects everyone. No one is immune. BUT that doesn’t mean we stop working to help better understand our prejudices and find ways to bring justice and peace to this world so divided.

This is the work of the church in our time. When we affirmed our baptism we made a promise to “strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” When each of us made those promises there were different issues of justice and peace in all the earth toward which we strove. But today, gathered here as the church, this is our reality.

It’s some of the hardest work we can do, because it means leaning into the discomfort of recognizing our privilege. And the easy thing to do is snap back to the status quo. But in this case, as in many, the easy thing to do is not the right thing to do. The right and just thing to do is to listen our brothers and sisters who are being oppressed. To follow the example of Jesus and, rather than simply shut down the next time we hear “black lives matter”, take the next step toward listening and understanding another person in their struggles.

So, as we do this work together, may we be blessed in the same way that the deaf man was. Hear Jesus speak the word of “Ephphatha!” to you. Be opened to the ways in which the Holy Spirit is living, working, and moving in your heart. Be opened to a spirit of repentance following the example of Jesus. And be opened to a God who calls you to strive for justice in peace in all the earth. Because it is in this openness that we will truly see the coming kingdom of God.

Amen.

Books I Read in 2013

It seems that every time it comes around to write out these year-end book posts, it always gets a little crazier, and I’m always left feeling like I should have spent less time reading and more time being a productive member of society. But I didn’t. And reading is fun.

I set out to read 90 books in 2013, which is admittedly insane. I completed 2/3 of my goal — 60 books!

Presented below is a list of all of the books I read in 2013.  As I finished each book, I added them in. So this is, more or less, chronological throughout the year. Following that is some highlights and favorites. And I finish with some trivial statistics and self-indulgent nerdery. Here we go!

    https://i0.wp.com/d.gr-assets.com/books/1339602131l/8442457.jpg  https://ericclapp.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/powell.jpg                          book cover of Ways of Going Home byAlejandro Zambra                                                                    
                  

Now for the superlatives…

Favorite Fiction Book

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is an incredible book in all of the ways that every review says it is. Read it with all of the awe and incredulity that’s meant to accompany its reading. Stay up late to finish it. Then later this year, go and see it in the movie theater. But whatever you do: READ. THE. BOOK. FIRST.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is another wonderful book. It’s a story that you can get lost in as it follows a boy from his childhood through adulthood in a bizarre North Korean setting. You yearn with the character as he strives to survive and thrive in the midst of a brutal totalitarian regime. Here’s an interview with Johnson (who won a Pulitzer for this book) from the SF Weekly. Check it out here.

The Circle by Dave Eggers was one of the more recent books I read and got completely lost in. If _Brave New World_ would have been written when Twitter existed, this is what Huxley would have had in mind. Very engaging story that made me question and scrutinize the way I use social media and interact with everyone for a long while after I finished.

Favorite Non-Fiction Book

Anything by Brené Brown! If you’ve seen some of my posts on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll know that Brené was my big literary/intellectual/social work crush of 2013. It sounds weird, but I stand by it. If you’ve never read any of her books, she recommends reading The Gifts of Imperfection first, Daring Greatly second, and finish up with I Thought It Was Just Me. Highly recommend all of her stuff. Seriously. Read it. Now.

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber is a must read for anyone who’s worried they screw up too much to be a Christian. It’s a seriously good book that deserves all of the credit it has received. The way Nadia weaves through stories — both from the Bible and from her own life — is flawless. Can’t recommend this book enough.

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women by Sarah Bessey is an excellent companion to Nadia’s book. Sarah is an incredibly poetic writer and beautifully explores her own experience as a follower of Jesus with the male-centric messages that are often implicit in popular (read: evangelical) Christianity. She finds that it’s actually Jesus who calls her to be a Feminist. She also writes about feminism in a loving, kind, and compassionate way as well. Again… Just read it. It’s awesome. I promise.

Statistics

Total Pages Read (compiled by using Amazon’s pages numbers for each book): 16,267

Total Pages Read (adjusted for accuracy — subtracted 10% to count for indices, footnotes, and other numbered, but not read pages.): 14,640

Pages Read Per Day: 40.1

Average Number of Days It Took to Read One Completed Book: 6.1

What were some of your favorite books from 2013? What are some that you’re looking forward to in 2014?

Here’s to another great year of reading in 2014!

Cheers,
Eric

In Which I Am an Unabashed Jesus Feminist

I love writing. And I love reading. But more than anything I love reading great writing. And Sarah Bessey is a flat-out GREAT writer.

I’d been following her blog for a couple years now and have always appreciated how she manages to simultaneously speak with such passion and grace. She has a way of teaching through storytelling that makes you forget how much you’re learning and simply enjoy the lesson. [As you read her blog, you’ll notice the “In Which” in this post’s title is entirely unoriginal to me.]

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women (Howard Books, released on November 5, 2013) is her latest project and it is a wonderful contribution to the conversations surrounding faith, gender, church, and the Bible.

She starts [as the title probably implies] with Jesus. She weaves her own narrative of growing up in an incredibly faithful, yet by most standards “ordinary” family. One of the first lines to make me laugh out loud was when she described her dad. She says,

My dad is a true Canadian kid, deeply distrustful of religion, Toronto, politicians, and the Establishment.

She goes on to talk about life growing up in the church as one where women were constantly confined to certain parameters based on the fact that they were a woman, rather than where their gifts may lie. In many, though certainly not all, churches women are consistently put into boxes within the church. They’re told they can be involved in children’s ministry, hospitality ministry, the women’s Bible study ministry, the quilting and sewing ministry, the keep the coffee warm ministry, and on and on it goes. Regardless of their strengths and passions, women are confined to certain boxes, and those boxes limit their participation in the broader Church. And Bessey’s point is this: the Kingdom of God is missing out on some seriously talented and passionate people because of it!

A favorite part of mine [perhaps because of my love of lists-as-evidence] is in Chapter Six when she goes through the narrative of Scripture through the history of the church describing the incredibly significant roles women have played in the history of our faith. Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Jael, Ruth, Rahab, Esther, Hannah, Tamar were a few of the significant women of the Hebrew Bible. Moving through to the New Testament women like Priscilla, Lydia, Mary, Martha, the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene, Euodia, and Junia. She then considers women of modern church history like Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa, and Harriet Tubman.

When we think about the impact that women have had throughout the history of the faith, it should be overwhelming evidence against trying to strictly define what women can or cannot do in the life of the body of Christ.

But so often it isn’t. And that’s where the feminist part of this book comes in.

I have to admit that I was ready and waiting for the unabashed feminism to come in with a hyper-aggressive, demanding approach. But:

1) That’s not Sarah Bessey’s style.

And

2) As Sarah points out, that’s not the way of the Jesus Feminist.

The wonder of this book is in its subtlety. I was barely aware that I was becoming a Jesus Feminist until I closed the book and I could feel the tension in my muscles when I considered the injustice of the Church telling women what they can or cannot do because of their womanhood.

It doesn’t necessarily matter where you fall on political lines or religious affiliations, this is an important book for everyone to read. The writing is both poetic and challenging, but espouses a kind of humility that is incredibly rare.

It’s available on Amazon or at your local bookstore. Even though I was given an advanced ebook copy, I still ordered my own copy. You should too. Buy it. Read it. Buy it for your friends to read. Buy it for your pastor to read. Then talk about it. These are the conversations that are worth having.

Cheers,
Eric

I received an advance copy of Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey from NetGalley in return for my review. There was nothing that stipulated that it had to be positive, only honest. No other compensation was provided.

A Sermon on Luke 17:11-19

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean.15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

During my time in seminary, out in Berkeley, some of my favorite and most memorable nights were when a bunch of us would bring what food we had out to the courtyard. We’d fire up the grill, pour a glass of wine, and spend time talking, laughing, and dreaming about the future.

Every once in a while, during one of these nights, I’d find myself pulling back from the group a little bit and becoming aware of something bigger going on. I was able to see the blessing of friendship and community in a very real and present kind of way. I was filled with a sense of gratitude each time I found this happening. And then one of us would just come out and say it: “Isn’t it just great when we get together like this?” In the naming of that blessing, we give thanks.

We have these experiences often, don’t we? We have experiences that are enhanced by simply naming the blessing of that time. It could be sitting by the river and reading a book on a nice, fall afternoon. It could be gathering for dinner with friends and family who you haven’t seen in far too long. Or it could even be taking a step back from homecoming festivities to notice the blessing of friendship and community.

There’s a blessing in simply doing these actions, but it takes on a bit of a different character when we can name that blessing and be present with it in that time and space. This is what our Gospel story is getting at today.

Jesus is traveling through an in-between land. He’s not quite in Galilee, but not in Samaria either. He’s walking the land in between. And it’s worth noting that these two regions do not like each other. Galileans saw Samaritans as unclean heathens who were not worthy of being seen and respected.

Jesus enters a village and ten lepers approach him, but they keep their distance. They call out and plead with him to have mercy on them. Jesus sees them and gives them a command. He tells them to go show themselves to their priests. We then hear that as they went on their way, they were made clean. Turns out the priest didn’t have any special remedy or anything like that. Rather that it was in the obedience and turning in a new direction, that they were made clean.

Then we hear that one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned around to give thanks. There’s something about seeing and recognizing something in the present moment, and being able to give thanks that increases our awareness of God. Jesus sees these lepers and sends them on their way to healing. The Samaritan leper sees that he has been healed and his only response is to return to Jesus and give thanks.

After the cured leper gives thanks, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”

The words of Jesus healed the man of his leprosy. The man’s thankful response made him well. There’s a substantial difference between treating an illness and treating a person — between being made clean and being made well.

I’m reminded of the Robin Williams film Patch Adams. In this movie, Williams plays Patch, a rather unorthodox medical student. He sees offering medical care as not only treating diseases, but also treating people. He doesn’t focus so hard on treating the illness that he loses sight on also treating the person.

He doesn’t want to help people just survive. He wants to help them live. He focuses on wholeness. He uses laughter as a treatment. There are some incredible scenes where he goes into the children’s hospital wearing his white coat and red clown nose.

He does this because he knows that there is more to making someone well than just curing their illness.

At the end of the movie, he’s brought before a board of physicians to defend himself against a malpractice suit. He gives an impassioned speech which crescendoes with the line, “You treat a disease, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you win!”

There’s a difference between being made clean and being made whole.

Having eyes to see that difference, and to see those in need around us, is something so important. So often we can get caught in the rat race of what we’re supposed to do that we sometimes don’t see things that are right in front of us. We spend so much time trying to be the smartest, or the most athletic, or the best parent, friend, or volunteer that we can sometimes be blind to the people in our community who might be crying out for mercy.

There’s an ancient rabbi who says that when Moses passes by the burning bush, the bush has always been burning.

This time, Moses finally stopped long enough to realize it.

We pass burning bushes and people crying for mercy everyday — all through the day. But we move so fast and we can be so pre-occupied that we just miss it.

Where are the burning bushes that you encounter in your everyday life?

Who are the people from the fringes of your life who are crying out to you for mercy?

What would it look like to spend this next week intentionally doing what we can to see those around us?

This past Wednesday, when we did the healing service, there were a number of us who were struck at how sacred and holy it is to come forward and say, “I don’t have it all together. I’m broken. And I need to be healed.”

In that moment of humility, we are seen and we are loved by a God who is so much greater than our faults and our shortcomings. We are called forward to be healed and made whole by a God who constantly brings life out of death. And then we are sent out as messengers of this good news to bring mercy and wholeness to the world.

Amen.

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