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.


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!