Birthday Poem & Queries about Dismantling Oppression

For the third year in a row, I want to share a poem with you all for my birthday.

A Small Needful Fact
Ross Gay

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

For the last several years, I have been working on understanding racism and the ways I benefit and how I uphold structures of oppression, especially racism. This is hard work and I constantly continue to make mistakes.

In this ongoing work, I have learned that while dismantling systems and structures of oppressions, I need to also think about how to create new structures and new systems that work to center the experiences of the oppressed. We, the oppressed and oppressed, need new models of how to be truly free from systemic oppression.

In thinking about this new growth, this poem reminds me that the fruits of our labor may outlive us and continue to subvert the power structures for a long time. As the poem points out, even through the state unjustly took away Eric’s breath, his own handiwork might still be helping others to breathe and thrive to this very day.

As a Christian, that is what encourages me about the Cross, death and the state did not have the final word. Jesus rose again to give freedom to the oppressed.

Here are some queries:

  • How are you working to understand how systemic oppression affects your life?
  • How are you working to be free?
  • Where are you seeing new growth in your daily lives that subverts these oppressed structures?

I am interested in reading your responses. They would be great gifts to me on my birthday.

More on Quaker Theology of Continuing Revelation

I gave this sermon on August 9, 2015 at Spring Friends Meeting.

As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said. ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.

– George Fox

In June, when I was last here, I mentioned the Quaker theology of continuing revelation. In that sermon, I said, “Some within our yearly meeting find this theology of continuing revelation distressing, but I find comfort in this theology because it honors Friends’ longtime witness that God is still speaking to our condition today, both as a corporate body and as individuals. We should always be listening for how God wants to use us and our abilities as disciples of God’s grace within today’s ever-changing world.”

Today I want to expand on this point and, by doing so; I will make a passionate defense for the theology of continuing revelation within modern Quakerism and within our yearly meeting.

For me, as a Christian Quaker, the words of George Fox, written above, still inform how I view my relationship with Christ: Christ as a heavenly guide, still leading us two millennia later. In the Gospel of John 1:9, it is stated that “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” This is the Light that is still among us and within us.

If we honestly believe that God has stopped speaking, all that God have ever said is in the Bible, let’s just close up shop right now and start calling us the Historical Society of Friends. Let’s just read the Bible as a historical novel that has no relevance to how we live today. Let us stop having waiting worship and pretending that we will somehow hear the voice of God today. Let us board up this meetinghouse and do our study of the Holy Scriptures in private.

But I do not believe this and this meeting does not believe this either. Throughout my readings of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, I see God is always present in the journeys of God’s people, even at the most difficult points of time. God was present with Moses, God was present with Ruth and Naomi, God was present with Christ on the cross, and God was present with the women as they discovered that the tomb was indeed empty. And God is still present with us today through God’s son, Jesus Christ, and God is still speaking to our condition today.

Why would God abandon us generations later and not continue to reveal Godself to us? In a way Quakerism should be described as a corporate journey towards building God’s Kingdom here on Earth.

Friend Lloyd Lee Wilson from our sister yearly meeting North Carolina Conservative writes: “God continues to teach those who make themselves available to be taught how to live according to the Divine Will in the present day. Continuing Revelation does not involve a new Gospel, but teaches us how to live out the Everlasting Gospel in our current circumstances.”

Our current circumstances bear some resemblance to First Century Palestine where an Empire was in charge of a large part of the world and injustice was rampant throughout the countryside. Yet, in many other ways, Twentieth First Century USA is also vastly different than First Century Palestine. We know more about the wider world and how the world functions than humans have ever known before. These scientific advances have largely helped the world to prolong and improve life. Some believe that these advances have led us into a new age where God is not needed; we have advanced beyond the need for Christ

Yet, I do not want to replace my belief in Christ with believing in only scientific knowledge, as some New Atheists have suggested. Science without morality has brought us the atomic bomb and other increased capabilities to kill each other, which have only increased misery in our world. We still need to offer moral guidance for the world and to proclaim that God is still present within our world and within our lives

Friend Lloyd Lee also reminds us that this is not a new Gospel that is being created through the continuing revelations we receive. Some liberal Friends have interpreted the theology of continuing revelation as a way to disregard the Bible and I think some conservative-theologically Friends within our yearly meeting fear that more liberal-theologically Friends are using/will use this theology as a way to discount the Bible and Christ. We are not trying to create a new Gospel but trying to understand what God’s message means in today’s context.

I want to go further with this and say that God will reveal Godself according to our individual and corporate abilities. For example, not in the too distant past, this meeting would not have approved of same-sex marriage. Friends here have now realized that God’s love applies to the LGBTQ community. But what if I brought a message advocating for the inclusion of the LGBTQ community to this meeting in 1990 or 1970 or even 1950? Would it have been too much for the meeting? What has happened in the intervening years? God hasn’t changed, instead we have changed and we are still changing. I often wonder what beliefs do we hold today that future generations will be stunned to learn about and think, “What were they thinking back then?”

Also, since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, one year ago today, we have started to look deeply at racism within our community and within ourselves in a different way than we have before. The shout of Black Lives Matter have brought this topic to the forefront in this country and we are slowly responding. We still have a ways to go in confronting the embedded racism within our midst. But that is the Good News: God will continue to be with us as we stumble towards creating God’s Kingdom here on Earth.

Before I end my message today, I want to speak about the dangers within continuing revelation. I have already spoken about how people think that we have surpassed the need for Christ and the Bible. I have also seen people with big egos run over others by saying that this is the will of God or that God has told them that others should follow them. Yet, this should not be happening as much as I see because Friends over the centuries have developed corporate and individual discernment processes to test leadings of individuals and of the larger bodies.

Within the theology of continuing revelation, we still need to heed this framework that Friends have developed over the last three centuries to test and carry leadings. Sadly I do not see many Friends heeding this advice and a lot of the strife within our yearly meeting is due to a lack of commitment to corporate discernment and discipline.

Let us continue to not only deepen our individual and corporate discernment into what God is revealing to us while we gather together, but also recommit to practices of testing and carry leadings among us to be certain that we are listening to God, not our egos.

God still needs us to be God’s disciples within the world and to work towards building God’s Kingdom here on Earth.

Are We Giving Enough of Ourselves?

In the scripture that was read this morning, Apostle Paul is talking about generosity. He is encouraging the Church at Corinth to continue with their generosity towards the Church at Jerusalem. The challenge I want to offer to you, to me, to us today is: Are we giving enough of ourselves?

Thinking about the ChMembers of the public continue to pay their respects and leave flowers outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina June 19, 2015, two days after a mass shooting left nine dead during a bible study at the church.urch in Jerusalem this week, the mother church for early Christians, led me to think about another mother church, Emanuel AME, in Charleston, South Carolina. This church is affectionately known to many as Mother Emanuel because it is the oldest AME Church in the South. Over the years, the church has served as a beacon of hope for many generations of African Americans.

Probably all of us know about the sad events that transpired there on the evening of June 17th. A white man, Dylann, who was intent on starting a race war, entered the church with only unthinkable plans in mind. When he left the church an hour later, nine people were dead and one more was left injured.

There are reports that Dylann sat there for about an hour listening to the Bible Study they were having and even participating in the study near the end. During that hour, Dylann started to second guess himself about what led him to Mother Emanuel in the first place. Sadly, he decided to go through with his plans anyways.

When tragic events like these occur, I wonder what can I do? What can we do? Are we giving enough of ourselves?

In our current Capitalistic society, we are often told that time is money; what we devote our time to is what we truly invest in. With that colloquialism in mind, I am looking at generosity this morning more by what we spend our precious time on than how we use our money.

Last December when I preached here, I talked about the Black Lives Matter movement and the need to proclaim that this is the year of the Lord’s Favor following the call of the prophet Isaiah. Seven months later, there are still calls of Black Lives Matter from protestors in the streets. Even more parents of color have been burying their daughters and sons far too young. We have new names, likeimgres-1 Freddie Gray and Walter Scott that are being held up, and new locales of Baltimore and North Charleston being invoked as epicenters for the movement. Like these prior tragedies, the shooting at Mother Emanuel has revealed how much work still needs to be done towards achieving racial justice.

We are hearing the calls for us to be involved in the movement.

Yet, how are we responding to these calls? Are we using our gift of time towards working for racial justice? Are we giving enough of ourselves?

Paul writes, “Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so” and then he adds an exhortation: “Now finish the work”. This last part Paul is demanding us to do more. In that context, this meant that the Corinthians needed to give more of their material wealth to Jerusalem.

But, what does this mean for us some two thousand years later? I would say that the need at this time is to use our white privilege to combat the racial injustice that our sisters and brothers of color are fighting against. It is also a call for self-examination as white people1397407175801 to think about the roles we unwittingly play in our current system that perpetuates injustice. We all have some internalized racism because we currently live in a society where institutional racism still thrives long after the Whites Only signs have been taken down.

One thing that I have been challenging myself on is re-imagining the Christ Jesus. We often see images of Jesus as a white man. This certainly would have been quite the sight in First Century Palestine: a really pale white man. Yet, all of the popular depictions of Jesus in the US and what we probably grew up with is seeing Jesus portrayed as a white man that looked like all of us in this room today.

The Black Liberation theologian James Cone writes:

For too long Christ has been pictured as a blue-eyed honky… We need to dehonkify him and thus make him relevant to the black condition.^.

urlI will add that dehonkifying Christ would also make Him more relevant to the white condition today, a condition that needs to really face the racial injustice in our midst.

What would it mean for us to follow a non-white Savior? A Christ that does not look like the more privileged class in the US, but more like the oppressed. With that challenge, would we more likely seek that of God within people that do not look like us or who do not happen to sit among us today in worship?

One of the many qualities that I value about Quakerism is our use of queries to help guide us going deeper in our faith and to discern what the will of God is for us at this time. The answers we may find one day could be quite different from the answers that we could come to at another time. These will change not because God changes, but our abilities and gifts change over time. For this reason, I ask a lot of questions in my message today because our answers will be different because God has equipped us with different abilities and gifts to further the creation of God’s Kingdom here on Earth.

Some within our yearly meeting, North Carolina (Friends United Meeting) find this theology of continuing revelations distressing, but I find comfort in that because it honors Friends’ longtime witness that God is still speaking to our condition today, both as a corporate body and as individuals. We should always be listening for how God wants to use us and our abilities as disciples of God’s grace within today’s ever-changing world.

In the last part of the passage shared today from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he talks about the need for fair balance in giving. In giving of ourselves, we need to be careful to rest and not burn out. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Racial justice will not be achieved quickly, so we need to pace ourselves for the long haul.

But we need to keep asking us along the way:

Are we giving enough of ourselves towards the cause of racial justice?


^ A Black Theology of Liberation, 29.

Selma and The Need for More Interfaith Community Organizing

Near the end of the new movie, Selma, I witness how people from different faith gather together for the march to Birmingham. In these scenes, people from different faiths from across the country come together to stand with the people of Selma and the civil rights leaders to make a bigger statement to the oppressive powers that controlled Selma and Alabama in the 1960s. The valuable lesson I receive from the Selma is how critical it is to have interfaith groups working together to end injustice.

Group Hands Up! Photo after the Selma Screening in Greensboro

Group Hands Up! Photo after the Selma Screening in Greensboro Image via April Parker

Last Wednesday, shortly before Selma was nationally released, I watched the film at a community event in Greensboro, NC, one of the several #SelmaHandinHand screenings hosted by Paramount Pictures and community groups across the South. In the audience, there were people from across the faith spectrum: Muslims students, Christians campus ministers, retired Jewish professors, all sitting together to watch this film. This is the kind of diversity that is often missing in the larger movements today that are trying to work to fight current injustices in our communities.

During my first year of seminary I took a class on theology and community organizing taught by an ethics professor, Dr. John Bowlin, and Rev Jarret Kerbel, an Episcopal Rector from Philadelphia, who has been active in interfaith community organizing. Through their teaching, readings, and guest speakers, we heard about the amazing work that the Gamaliel Foundation, Industrial Areas Foundation, and PICO National Network are doing in communities across the country through their local interfaith affiliates. The class showed me about the critical need for faith communities to be involved with each other to fight systemic issues facing communities.

Yes, I have seen interfaith movement-building happening in response to Ferguson, during the Occupy Wall Street Movement and with immigration reform. But more can and should be done! We need to start working together more to tackle these issues! Organizations like Gamaliel, IAF and PICO create wonderful opportunities for diverse communities to come together to work for these valuable causes in our own communities.

Yet, many churches do not participate in these networks. Even within my own faith community, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), few Quaker congregations are involved with these interfaith community organizing groups. Mostly, I have seen apathetic opposition from Quakers across the country to joining with local interfaith community organizing groups. The complaints have largely centered around local congregations feeling led to work on issues that they do not feel that the wider community would not support.

This attitude does not just appear within the Quaker community. This is the time to step aside our personal priorities and agenda, in order to make connections and find common ground to make larger societal gains.

civil2

Still from Selma movie via Virtual Jerusalem

We need to work together to start fighting systemic issues that faces our community if we can achieve anything like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in our time. This is the lesson I received from Selma that is still relevant even 50 years later.

Is your place of worship involved with interfaith groups fighting against injustice in your own community?

If not, check out these websites to find the group(s) near you and get your faith community involved:

www.gamaliel.org

www.industrialareasfoundation.org

www.piconetwork.org

If there is not a group, like Greensboro NC where I currently live, look for #BlackLivesMatter events as a place where people from different faiths are starting to organize around in absence of formal organizations or networks.

It is time to organize our faith communities!

How Do We Proclaim This is the “Year of Lord’s Favor”?

I preached this sermon on December 14, 2014 at Spring Friends Meeting, near Snow Camp, NC. The text I used for this passage was Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11.

Over the last few weeks, we have heard the voices of the oppressed. We have heard their voices coming from Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, New York, Cleveland, Ohio, and beyond. We have heard their cries yelling #BlackLivesMatter

Perhaps we have even tried to cry with them as we stood in the streets or as we prayed.

A week and half ago I stood in the streets the evening after the Grand Jury did not indict the police officers involved in killing Eric Garner over untaxed cigarettes. It was a time for public mourning. The tears and the anger all came out at once. It was not just about Eric and the way he died. He is just the latest one who did not get justice at all. People of color are tired of the injustice that criminalizes their bodies and are weary of the continuous fight to make their lives matter to the wider world.

In our Scripture reading today, we are hearing that it is the right time to proclaim that this is the “year of Lord’s Favor.” How do we proclaim that this is the “year of Lord’s Favor” in such a time full of injustice and mourning?

We are hearing from a prophet whom scholars call the third Isaiah. This third prophet appears in the Book of Isaiah when the Israelites have returned to their land from the exile in Babylon. What should be a joyous return has been marked with conflict between those who stayed behind and those who are returning. This is not what one would think would be exactly the events for a year to be declared the “year of Lord’s Favor”.

In this time that other Christians call Advent, the season right before Christmas, many see allusions in this Old Testament reading today to the coming of Christ, to the birth of the Messiah. In less than two weeks, that Good News is coming, Christ is coming, coming to be born to Mary & Joseph in a manger in Bethlehem.

This text from Isaiah is one that Jesus Himself preaches. According to the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, upon returning to Nazareth, Jesus reads this scripture in the temple. As we see throughout Luke, in Jesus’ time, Israel has its fair share of injustice and is being ruled once again by an outside Empire.

How can we proclaim that this is the “year of the Lord’s favor” during such a time of outrage and tragedy? When people feel the farthest from God’s love and righteousness?

In my own faith journey, there was a long time that I felt estranged from Christ. As a boy with a pronounced speech impediment, I did not feel God’s love when I suffered taunts and stares. Even today with two degrees, strangers still treat me as less than human upon hearing me speak. As if a person who is mentally handicapped is less than human. I often wondered: “Why did God curse me with an imperfect body?”

Even with my experiences, I do not know what it is like to have my whole existence as a human being disregarded just because of the pigment of my skin. What is like to be treated as nothing more than an animal, before and after death, like Tanisha Anderson in Cleveland? I do not know what it means to have a loved one lay out in the middle of the street for four and half hours in broad daylight in one’s own neighborhood, like Michael Brown in Ferguson.

How do we proclaim that this is “the year of the Lord’s favor”? What does the Good News to the Oppressed mean when there is only mourning in the streets and no sense of justice?

Christ’s beginning is not what we generally think about as “good news”. Jesus was born to poor parents outside in the elements because there was no room for them to stay at the inn. Shortly thereafter they all had to flee from an oppressive regime into a foreign land.

Years later, Jesus was later mocked and brutally executed by this same oppressive Empire. Yet another person of color executed in unfair circumstances, whose body was left outside for a long period of time to be mocked. Yet, in the end, we all know that the Roman Empire did not win. In the story of Christ, we know the ending; the State killed him after a sham of a trial, only to be Risen again. In that ultimate injustice, there was an everlasting justice that happened and is still happening today.

So how do we proclaim that this is “the year of the Lord’s favor”?

This starts by realizing that our human justice system is flawed.

In the second part of the passage we heard today from Isaiah, we hear Isaiah say while channeling the Lord, “For I the Lord love justice” What does God’s justice look like? Let us first remember Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Within this we can also remember the Quaker saying that there is a piece of God within each of us.

These two things are not taken in account in our humanly courtrooms. As we further divide ourselves into stringent categories of good and bad. We criminalize and demonize the part of humanity that does not fit in or fall in line, like bodies of color and disabled bodies.

We can start fighting for the kind of justice that builds God’s Kingdom here on Earth, where the Lord’s justice will forever reign. This is where people of color will be treated as fully human. This is where people with disabilities will be treated as valuable members of the community with diverse gifts to offer.

Our justice comes from a higher power and we are being called into the streets to proclaim this. This is the year of the Lord’s favor!

At the end of this passage from Isaiah, the prophet says, “The Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

In this barren winter land, I know there are the seeds of justice that are able to burst up at any moment. We do not have to wait until the spring for this new growth. This seed of God’s Kingdom is within each of us and we can share this when we stand up for justice for all!

Let’s go out and proclaim that this is the year of the Lord’s favor and fight for this everlasting justice to reign here on Earth!

On Respect of Police Officers

In the aftermath of the Grand Jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson on charges of killing an unarmed teen named Michael Brown, I have been hearing in different ways that Michael should have been more respectful of Darren and cops in general. If he had, he would have still been alive.

Respect runs both ways.

The Missouri Attorney General Office last year found that the Ferguson Police Department disproportionately stopped Black motorists more than other races. The city of Ferguson is 66% Black, but Black motorists made up 86% of the car stops made by FPD in 2013 Even through the police officers were 50% more likely to find illegal contrabrand in their car searches of White motorists, Black motorists were arrested almost double the rate of white motorists.

This is the environment that Michael Brown grew up in and lived in.

Over the last five months, there have been several other incidents of police agencies killing people of color. Several of them have been videotaped, but so far no police officer have been charged in those killings. The crimes they were killed for range from holding toy guns in public in an “open carry” state to selling illegal cigarettes to having a mental illness. Not only have none of these police officers have been charged, they still all have jobs to the best of my knowledge.

Just last Friday, Akai Gurley was mistakenly shot as he opened a door into a stairwell by a rookie police officer. Everyone has said that this was a horrible mistake, but the officer still has a job at this point, more than a week later. What would happen to a civilian who mistakenly killed a police officer?

In May of this year, four Killeen, Texas police officers did a no-knock drug raid in the early morning hours waking up Marvin Louis Guy. He responded by shooting and killing a police officer because he thought he was being robbed. It was a horrible mistake, but the prosecutor has said that Guy will face the death penalty. Also, no drugs were found in the search of the house, only a pipe.

This is the environment that people of color grow up in and live in.

We do have a respect problem in this country!

Let us start respecting the lives of people of color!

#BlackLivesMatter