Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie

France suffered a horrible atrocity two weeks ago.  Eleven staffers of a satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, were systematically executed in a terrorist attack.  There is no excuse.  There is no understandable rationale.  The motive was revenge for the satirical portrayal of the prophet Mohammed.  As to the facts of the crime, the motive is quite irrelevant.  It was simply a mass murder by cowards.  End of story.
In response people all over France and indeed all over the world proclaimed their solidarity with these words—Je suis Charlie.  I am Charlie.  And as to the act of terrorism we have a moral obligation to stand with them.  Je suis Charlie.  The Church must stand against murder regardless of motive.  Nothing that Charlie Hebdo ever published justified this crime carried out in the name of religion.  Murder is a desecration of the image of God.  Murder in the name of God is a profound blasphemy.  Murder is murder.  No one bears responsibility for it except the murderers and their accomplices.
And while the satirical portrayal of Islam in no way shifts responsibility for what happened from the murderers to the victims, neither do the murders give justification for mocking what some people hold most dear because it is religious.  We protect the right to freedom of expression, even in the form of the mocking of religions.  That there is a right, however, is not the same thing as being right.
It is fashionable in our day to make fun of religion.  Indeed, we quite often deserve it.  I can think of many things in the Church that would justify satire.  Making fun of my own religions is one thing.  Making fun of someone else’s is quite another thing. 
For Episcopalians, indeed for Christians generally, to do so breaches a fundamental tenet of faith, to respect the dignity of every human being.  And religion goes very much to the core of human dignity, at least as the religious understand it.  That is something we must take not only seriously but faithfully. 
I have a moral responsibility to stand in solidarity with the victims of a terrorist crime in Paris.  Je suis Charlie.  But I also cannot condemn the murders at Charlie Hebdo two weeks ago without also acknowledging that I must stand against all affronts to human dignity, including those affronts that are aimed at demeaning what other human beings hold most dear.  The fact that what other human beings hold most dear is religious does not make it right.  The fact that what other human beings hold most dear is something I do not understand does not make it right.  The fact that what other human beings hold most dear is something with which I disagree does not make it right. 
That is all the more true in a secular world in which faith is seen as reason for ridicule.  That is all the more true in a culture in which one religion, Islam, takes the brunt of the ridicule for all of us who are religious.  I must proclaim my solidarity with the objects of ridicule, too.  And as to that, Je ne suis pas Charlie.  Je suis musulman.  I am not Charlie.  I am Muslim.

Monday, January 5, 2015

It Matters a Great Deal

Like many of us, today is my first day back after the Christmas break.  I love coming to work, but for some reason, I have been having a hard time getting back into the swing of it this year.  I had a hard time getting up this morning.  The walk to the station seemed especially cold today.  I dreaded getting on a subway, facing the crowds, and seeing the kiosks at Bryant Park empty and in some state of disassembly.  I lacked any inspiration of what I might share with you on this first day back of a new year. 

I hung up my coat, turned on my office lights, and got some coffee.  As I came back in my office door, my eyes spotted the Christmas cards that had arrived during December.  I had stood them up along my bookshelf to remember those who had sent them and the glad tidings of the season.  Christmas was over.  They certainly didn’t matter anymore.  Time for them to go, I thought, more in recognition of my mood than that Christmastide still has two days to go.  So I walked beside the bookshelf, scooping each one up, and with a tinge of regret, I unceremoniously discarded them in the trash. 

Then I sat down at my desk and stared at a blank screen not having any idea what to say.
It had only been a minute, if that long, when I received an email from Francis, a priest in Kenya.  He is someone I have never met in person, but to whom I feel a strong bond.  He was introduced to me two years ago by a mutual friend, another priest in Kenya, whom I do know well, because Francis’ daughter Marion was very sick with a brain tumor.  Since then Francis and I have been in close contact.

He has let me know how Marion was doing in her school (receiving honors, designated head girl), and he has let me know when he had to go and bring her home because she was in too much pain to concentrate.  There have been trips to the local hospital in Eldoret, Kenya and a distant hospital in Kampala, Uganda for more advanced treatment.  There have been times things looked like they were getting better and times they looked like they were getting worse.  The doctors seemed baffled, or at least Francis was.  On occasion I have been able to help with some of the bills, which have stretched the family financially.

We have talked about other aspects of Francis’ life, too.  Francis has reminded me that my fundamental vocation is as a pastor, and now, a pastor to priests.  He has shared family challenges as well as great pride and joy at his other child’s academic progress.  I have never been to Kenya and I have never met Francis, Marion, or their family.  Still, Francis has reminded me of the strength of the bonds of baptism across many miles and across barriers of entirely human, even Christian, construction.  I am so grateful to him.

Last week Marion had to go back to the hospital in Eldoret.  More debilitating pain.  I began to wonder if it might be possible to bring her to the United States for evaluation and treatment.  I have no doubt that the local medical team is doing all it can, but I also knew I wanted for Marion what I would want for my own child.  Over the weekend I asked Francis to send me some more detailed information, which arrived this morning at 1:31 Eastern time.  Once finishing this reflection, my plan was to forward the information to my doctor and ask her advice about who in New York might be willing to look into this case.

While I was staring into the abyss of a blank screen, another email from Francis arrived.  It was 7:57.  Francis wrote, “Thanks Bishop for all that you did for us but God has rested Marion today.”  I do not know how to express my grief at the death of brave Marion and my sorrow for her parents. 

This is a paradox, but somehow I have remembered why it is I come to work in the morning, and why it is I brave the cold to walk to the subway and get on the train each day.  There is an occasional day when I wonder if it has any point at all.  Today started out to be one of those, which are thankfully rare.  Marion has reminded me in the strangest sort of way that there is indeed a point, no matter how hard it may be to see some days.  Marion has reminded me to keep trying.  Marion has reminded me, in the most inexplicable way, of the nearness of God.  And Marion has reminded me of God’s promise in Christ that as he has been raised from the dead, so will she.  And so will we.

The first thing I did was to get the Christmas cards out of the trash and set them back up on my bookshelf.  It does matter after all.  It matters a great deal.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Sign of Emmanuel

It is not unusual for me to be a bit slow getting into the Christmas spirit.  This year, though, I’m not entirely sure I have wanted to get into the Christmas spirit.  I have not gotten out the Christmas music so far.  I have had a hard time uttering the phrase that I am normally anxious to repeat both to friend and stranger at this time of year, “Merry Christmas!”  I even missed my battle with getting the tree in the stand and the lights on the branches.  For some inexplicable reason, both were accomplished quickly and easily.  There was no proclamation after the first attempt, “Uh-oh, it isn’t straight.”  There were no strands of lights that failed to work.  I was deprived even of this yearly ritual that has the same effect as Marley’s ghost paying a haunting visit on Christmas Eve making Scrooge joyful that Christmas has not passed him by after all. 
This year, it has just been hard even to get anxious about getting the Christmas spirit.  With all that has gone on, I haven’t much wanted to.  Senseless killings in Ferguson and Staten Island and the exposure of our country’s racial animosity not far below the surface of everyday life have been much more on my mind.  This weekend the concerns of a very broken world intruded once again to push Christmas out of my mind in the revenge murder of two New York City police officers.  When it comes to the Christmas spirit, I just haven’t been interested this year.
Maybe, though, I have not so much been uninterested in Christmas as coming to terms with it in a new way.  Maybe Christmas this year, for the first time, is not proving to be a distraction from the ills around us and that is how it should be.  Maybe Christmas this year has finally stopped being the most wonderful time of the year and instead become that time of the year when the world as it is runs headlong into the world as it should be, and that really ought to disturb us.  Maybe Christmas this year will remind us of God’s dream for all of us, and not only how far we are from it, but also how much we are needed by God, revealed at this time in the helplessness of a child, to make it so.  Maybe Christmas this year will be about comfort in a way it rarely is, not so much warm, cozy fireplaces, but comfort in the sense of its original meaning, being filled with strength for the task ahead.  
For me, this Christmas has had shed light on a paradox I have pondered for many years.  It is the paradox of Emmanuel.  On the one hand, we have the reference to Emmanuel when the angel reveals the coming birth to Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew (1:23).  We read this as a sign of the coming sweetness and light, of a divine birth, of an angelic announcement of good news and great joy, of shepherds gathered at the manger, and of wise men traveling from the East to worship the child with precious gifts.
The angel, though, is quoting Isaiah about the sign of a virgin bearing a child, and there it is a different connotation I have usually found difficult to accept.  There the sign of Emmanuel announces a terrible judgment.  “The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah” (7:17).  It’s a different picture than what we normally associate with Christmas.
This year I’m seeing the connection.  Emmanuel, God with us, does not mean that all is right with the world because God makes a home among humankind.  It means God’s presence among us in the Christ reveals what is not right and that once again we have the opportunity to make it so. 
The Christmas spirit is taking on a fuller, perhaps more mature, meaning for me this year.  Christmas this year is not a distraction from what is.  It is a call to participate in what will be.  Christmas this year is not an invitation to put adulthood aside.  It is an invitation to grow up into the stature of Christ.  Christmas this year is not an affirmation of the way things are.  It is a promise of the way they shall be.  In that there is good news, and joyful tidings, and comfort abounding.
So, this year Ginger, Annie, and I wish all of you a paradoxical Christmas, one in which we are not lulled into complacency but stirred into action as our gift to the Child, Emmanuel, God with us.

Monday, December 8, 2014


Once again, I have sinned.  I went to a party last night at which Christmas carols were sung.  In Advent, God forbid.  I did it and I enjoyed it.  Forgive me.  I’m not absolutely sure it was all that sinful, though.  There are some reasons.
For one thing, the piano player didn’t know the tunes.  I’m not entirely sure he’d ever herd them before.  The out-of-tune piano didn’t help.  Surely that counts for something of a reprieve.  And the people present didn’t know the words, either.  That’s got to be a mitigating factor in my favor.  The words were printed on a paper, which was handed out, but they were wrong, badly wrong.  Lines were omitted.  Verses were melded together nonsensically.  All in all, it must have been divine intervention that the carols got sung at all.  And if God were involved, it seems hard to blame me entirely.  Besides, there were two other bishops present, and they did it, too.
But here’s the main reason I think I may get a break.  It’s not because there were a lot of rich and powerful people there, although there were.  The party’s host had made a great deal of money in investment management.  It is because the speaker noted that he, too, had enjoyed a career in the finance industry, only in his case that meant robbing banks, a crime for which he had only been released from prison ten months ago.  Maybe there’s not that much difference after all.
The reason I think I might be forgiven for breaking into the Christmas carols a little early is that I’m pretty sure I saw the Christ child born last night.  I saw him born in a man from the streets of New York who has been given a new chance at life.  Like all children, we do not know yet whether this one will survive infancy.  There were, we should not forget, powerful forces at work in Bethlehem to make sure the child born then did not live.  They are at work still.  We are left only with hope.
I think I also caught a glimpse of the Christ Child’s birth in our host, too, when he spoke about his joy in meeting Jesus in those he had been blessed to visit in prison and was committed to helping after their release.  It’s not about duty, he explained.  “It’s like eating fudge every day.”  That’s the idea. 
So maybe Christmas carols weren’t so out of line.  After all, the Christ child was born last night, just as the Christ Child will be born tonight and tomorrow  night and the night after that. 
And as the Christ child must, the birth is always to a lowly mother.  Sometimes the mother is the streets.  Sometimes the mother is privilege laid aside, even just a little.  It is always lowly, though, because our God is a God who favors lowliness.  God’s own mother sings the theme.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Lk. 1:46-48). 
In the midst of Christ being born, maybe a few carols, especially badly sung, aren’t such a crime.  And if they are, well, I think I just caught a glimpse that crimes can be redeemed.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Call to Self-Examination and Prayer

As I wrote to you following the grand jury decision in Ferguson, so I write to you again in the aftermath of the Staten Island grand jury.  I struggle to find the words to express myself that go beyond a rant at a gross injustice.  I struggle to find something spiritually helpful in his senseless loss of life.  I feel even sadder now than I did ten days ago.  I am also more horrified. 
I am horrified, for one thing, by the video of Eric Garner’s death.  How could one not be horrified—an unarmed black man posing no apparent threat to the large number of police officers surrounding him (it looks like at least eight to me) on a charge, at most, of selling untaxed cigarettes (an allegation of which I, at least, have seen no evidence). 

Lethal force over untaxed cigarettes is horrifying enough.  The horror becomes all the more intense, though, if this chain of events was set in place because of the color of someone’s skin.  We are told that it wasn’t.  I want to tell you why I do not believe that.

Yesterday morning I rode the B Train from 110th Street to Bryant Park.  I like the B Train.  I can almost always get a seat.

Yesterday there were two barely teenage boys, perhaps 13 or maybe 14, sitting across from me, although separated by several empty places.  They were not together.  One was black.  One was white.  I doubt that is why they were separated.  I suspect they were just on their way to different middle schools somewhere down the line, or perhaps escaping one up the line. 

I was struck by how alike they behaved in a very typical 13-year-old-boy way.  The one directly across from me pulled up the hood on his coat, leaned all the way over to rest his head on his backpack, and went to sleep.  The other one leaned back against the wall of the train and closed his eyes.  Thirteen-year-old boys are nocturnal creatures. 

I wondered if their mothers had sent each of them off earlier in the morning, maybe with a kiss on the cheek, which 13-year-old-boys will sometimes still allow, and perhaps a lunch or snack for later in the day.  I’m pretty sure their mothers sent them off with the admonition to be careful.  I’m pretty sure the black mother sent her son off to school with more anxiety than the other, although all mothers of teenage boys have every reason to be anxious.  It did occur to me, though, that one might be more likely to come home safely than the other. 

Before the one in front of me leaned over and went to sleep, I noticed him look at me.  He looked at me several times.  And he looked at me suspiciously, very suspiciously.  He was the black one.  I remember thinking I understood why he might be looking suspiciously at the white guy across from him, particularly that morning.

And then the really horrible revelation.  Was I projecting?  Was what I perceived really my suspicion of him and not so much his of me?  God, I hope not, but if I’m honest with myself, I can’t tell you I absolutely know for sure.  It calls for me to examine myself carefully.

It seems to me that this is where we have to start, and that Advent is a particularly good time to do it.  We must begin with self-examination, a painfully honest self-examination.

And now what I’m going to say is particularly difficult.  The self-examination must begin with white people, such as myself.

I say this carefully and regretfully, but also from my heart.  For one thing, I am a white person.  I have no business telling black people what they need to examine in a situation like this.  And besides, it’s not the same thing.  Black people may have racial prejudices, but they do not generally make the power structure work based on them because the power structure is more in hands the color which is more like mine. 

Just as an example, I saw the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, comment on the Staten Island grand jury yesterday and ridicule the current mayor and others who took issue with it.  He reminded his audience of the importance of process and that in this case the process had reached its result.  And then he reminded those who watched that, after all, Eric Garner, the dead man, had just committed a crime when he was killed, something which, by the way, no jury, grand or otherwise, had a chance to consider.   That’s the difference between those with power and those without.  Those with power get the process.  Some systemic self-examination might be in order.
There’s another reason to start with white people.  I was brought up to notice skin color and to breathe in racism with no more intentionality than I breathed the air around me.  I’m sure my parents and grandparents made no decision to do so.  It just got passed on.  That’s the nature of original sins, after all.  They just get passed on as naturally as every other trait that goes with being human.  And in America, this is a sin with which, with rare exception, white people just come with without any particular fault of their own.  We just get it.  To get rid of it is going to take some self-examination because it is difficult even to notice, so subtle is it, to say nothing of criticize. 
Finally, I begin with white people because I have spent the last 26 years being a pastor primarily to white people—not exclusively, especially after I became a bishop, but primarily.  And as someone who has spent a lot of years caring for the souls of white people, I know that racism threatens their spiritual health in a very profound way.  What is a life or death issue for black people, as we have seen demonstrated, is an eternal life or death issue for white people.  So as a white pastor to a lot of white people, I think this intense self-examination needs to begin with us. 
The Episcopal Church is committed to changing this reality.  We are committed to taking our part in God’s Beloved Community, to preparing the way of the Lord, to the coming of the kingdom of God.  There is action coming.  For now, I’m suggesting that white people such as myself begin with some serious self-examination, and that we ask our black brothers and sisters to help us like John the Baptist in calling the powers that be to account.  And if we don’t do that, I suspect we have not seen anything as horrifying as what we will.  And it wouldn’t hurt to pray, all of us.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Baptism of Repentance

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk. 1:4). 

Repentance is a funny word.  It is one of those church words rarely used in a non-religious conversation.  In fact, just to hear it conjures up an image of a scary looking guy with a sign in Times Square. 
Maybe it’s supposed to be scary, at least a little bit. And now seems to me a pretty good time to take it to heart.

The dictionary meaning of repent has something to do with feelings, to feel remorse, to feel sorry, to feel regret.  The biblical meaning of repent, though, has to do with changing something.  It has to do with changing one’s point of view to see as God sees.  It has to do with changing one’s direction, to turn and follow God’s path.  It has to do with changing one’s behavior.  The biblical meaning of repent has nothing to do with feeling anything.  It has to do with taking action, with changing. 

Being repentant without changing the behavior that one repents of just doesn’t make much sense.  Repentance worth anything at all shows forth in behavior. 

Now would be a good time for that sort of repentance.  We have teenagers dying over a handful of cigars and violence erupting in the streets.  I’m pretty sure God isn’t particularly interested in feelings of remorse.  I do think God is interested in some changes in behavior. 

We have a priest and a 90-year-old man arrested in Ft. Lauderdale for feeding the homeless in a city park.  I’m pretty sure God isn’t particularly interested in feelings of remorse.  I do think God is interested in some changes in behavior. 

We have a professional athlete who punched his wife in the face restored to good standing in the NFL.  It remains to be seen if the fans will tolerate it.  I’m pretty sure God isn’t particularly interested in feelings of remorse.  I do think God is interested in some changes in behavior. 

John came preaching a baptism of that kind of repentance.  And that, according to Mark, is the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1).


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Truth that Was Told

Like a large family gathered around a bounteous autumn table keeping the peace by not telling the truth, many of us heard more truth last night than we were quite prepared to deal with.  And as in a family whose peace has been disturbed by a sudden explosion of truth, some of the truth that has been spoken has more to do with exposing raw emotion than it does helping the family be whole.  Some of the sudden truth is more hurtful than helpful.  Some of the painful truth is essential to face in order to move on. Some of the most recent truth can easily be forgotten.  And some of the truth, well, it remains to be seen what we make of it.
Last night laid bare a truth about America we all know but we rarely speak.  Last night demonstrated why we are afraid to speak it.  This is the truth.   America is a country deeply scarred by its racial past.  That famous first Thanksgiving at Plymouth 393 years ago, though surrounded with the warm glow of mythology, was in truth marked in its very origin by racial tension and on-going violence between the English settlers and the prior Native American inhabitants of what we know as Massachusetts. That backdrop no doubt contributed to the fact that the indigenous people were not invited the next time the event occurred two years later.  Abraham Lincoln established a day of Thanksgiving in the midst of a Civil War that was about racial division down to its core.  We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing, but we have rarely talked quite so honestly around the table as we talked last night, and it is unlikely that the blessing we seek can be had without the honesty we have learned to fear.
Part or last night’s truth was the rage that lies not far below the surface in this country.  It makes itself known from time to time, but we are usually adept at stuffing it back where it came from, below the surface and in the shadows, back into the closet where all sorts of unspeakable things reside until, that is, they are unexpectedly spoken again.  It remains to be seen whether we can shove last night’s display of righteous rage, even rage manipulated by thugs and cowards for their own purposes, back into the darkness from which it came.  I hope we cannot.
There was truth spoken last night about the legal system in our country, which had little to do with the Grand Jury.  Something is deeply broken.  We know that. We do not like to look at it.  Whatever questions I have about the process, I now have no choice but to accept the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson.  I do have a choice not to accept the uneven distribution of justice in this country.  I do have a choice not to accept the disproportional rates of incarceration among Americans of African descent.  I do have a choice not to accept the police procedures and tactics that unjustly target those in this country who are not white.  I do have a choice not to accept the growing divide in this country between rich and poor, which is no doubt breeding an unspeakable rage of its own.
I do not know whether I heard truth from the Grand Jury last night or not.  I am convinced that I heard their truth.  And from this point on, that case is closed.  I do not know whether I heard truth about Darren Wilson last night.  And from this point on, Darren Wilson is just irrelevant.  I do not believe I heard truth last night about Ferguson.  I think Ferguson was caught up in something not of its own making and beyond its ability to control.  And I think Ferguson was bearing the weight of a difficult truth for all of us, more than it should be expected to bear, more than any of us would be capable of bearing.
But the truth that concerns me the most this morning is the truth of Michael Brown.  There are some things about Michael Brown, to tell you my truth, I don’t really care about.  I don’t care that he may have stolen a handful of cigars from a convenience store one hot, summer afternoon.  I don’t really care in some ways whether shooting him was legally justified or not.  I do care that he is dead.
The truth I do care about is that a young man of promise beyond the mere potential that all of us still have as young men or women died in a violent fury four months ago.  I do care that his parents are left without him.  I do care that the world is left without him.  And I care a lot about whether Michael Brown’s truth is swallowed up in more violence and destruction and hatred. And I care a lot about whether Michael Brown’s truth instead might be the occasion when this American family of ours stops spewing forth venom about our racial past and present and decides instead to deal with them and create a different future for itself.  It remains to be seen what we make of Michael Brown’s truth this morning, and in the end, that is the only truth that really matters now.