Sabbatical Reflection 3 – The T-shirt

On a late 90’s trip to Memphis to visit family, I had the pleasure of walking down Beale street. Over the years of going there with my mom and brother, we’d gone to Mud Island, Graceland and other quintessential Memphis places. In the window of a tourist-trap store, there was a Sun Studios t-shirt. It wasn’t one of the places we’d visited, but it was fun to buy it and think about the early recordings of folks like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and so many others. Years later, still rocking the t-shirt on occasion, a stranger asked me if I was just wearing the t-shirt or if I’d been there. My snarky reply was, “Just wearing it; I’m one of those people.”

In my Vanderbilt class this summer, the memory popped up. Dr. David Kim, Professor of Religion at Connecticut College, talked about his deep passion for building a world that is more just. He reminded us that we have to really know what it means to to do this work – work that I would define as creating the visible reign of God on earth. Dr. Kim reminded us that there are lots of people showing up in t-shirts but not everyone knows what they will face.

Doing social justice in an unjust world means we will face dismissal and disdain. We are not exempt from hardship. In fact, walking in the way of Jesus in a society that glorifies narcissism and consumerist pleasures means that we will know hardship. It can look like standing up to beloved friends and family when they are dehumanizing things about those who Jesus made his priority: the poor, women, children, people on the margins.
Back in June, Dr. Kim reminded me that Christians determined to make the gospel real in our world will appear absurd. The roots of the word absurd are “ab” meaning “from/away” and “surd” meaning “something that makes sense.” You see, our society believes that making money is more important than the quality of people’s lives. Our society believes that one has to be worthy to receive any mercy or help. God has a different view, though. God’s mercy is abundant and requires no test of worthiness. In God’s economy, there is enough of every needful thing not just for survival, but for all to thrive.

While taking Charlie to swimming lessons this summer, another mom told me after the first week, she liked seeing what t-shirt I might wear. (My sabbatical uniform was yoga pants and t’s.) The t-shirts I wore were all some expression of my values, rooted in my faith. I pray that when people see me in them, these shirts simply confirm what they know about how I live in the world and not make them wonder if I’ve been there.

Advertisements

Sabbatical Reflection 2 – The Book of Ruth

Scripture’s ability to reveal truth in multiple ways blew me away this past Sunday. Chanhee’s Ruth-inspired children’s message about the power of crying with and being with our friends in hard times brought me to tears. Seeing Ruth’s ability to be with Naomi in the darkest time of her life without arguing with her to “buck up” humbles my heart with each read. Not only does Ruth not argue or dismiss Naomi and her feelings, but she doubles down on her commitments to Naomi and God. In difficult seasons, people often struggle to find or have people that can be with them fully, without trying to diminish or dispel the hurt and sorrow. When we show up with another in those moments, we take on their hurt too. When we stay with others in those moments, we have the chance to carry that sorrow.  Our culture tells us to turn away from hurt, or rush to buy something to relieve it. Ruth turns toward Naomi. I pray that we each have known someone who turned toward us and helped us bear the weight of sorrow – no matter the source. When the time comes, may we each live in that manner for someone else. It is then we discover how human we are and how we are made in God’s image.

The first week of my sabbatical was spent away in Nashville for a class at Vanderbilt. The class offered best practices, theory and encouragement for people who work for social justice. People came from across the country. The passion in the room was palpable and powerful. My heart was reinvigorated and challenged every day. One of the most significant challenges came from Dr. José Cossa, a professor in the Peabody College at Vanderbilt. His home country is Mozambique in Southeast Africa. He spoke to the necessity of shifting away from Western individualism and redefine how we see being human. He taught us about the idea Ubuntu.

Perhaps you’ve seen a meme with African children’s feet in a circle and a definition of the word “ubuntu” as “I am because you are.” While the sentiment and image are striking, Dr. Cossa let us know that this is not an accurate explanation of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is an African derived idea that takes different expressions across the African continent. Dr. Cossa went deeper saying that Ubuntu is more accurately expressed as “a human is a human because of humans.” The concept of Ubuntu is seen in the fact that some African languages have no concept of individual. When a person would refer to themselves, the word would be “we.” Further, when colonizers approached people who speak Bantu languages (rooted in the southern parts of Africa) and asked what they were called, the people simply said “bantu,” the word that means human. Misunderstanding, the colonizers called them Bantu as a name. (This information comes directly from my notes taken in Dr. Cossa’s class.)

Processing this history continues to inform reshaping of many ideas including humanity, individual people, church, and family. Ubuntu keeps waving to me from different corners of my mind as we go deeper in the book of Ruth. Ruth’s declarations to Naomi in chapter 1 (below) reinforces that our humanity is caught up in how we respond to another’s humanity. Her declaration strengthens my belief that any single person’s identity is never an individualistic matter, but rooted in our connections to others. Could I make a play on the idea of “we are what we eat?” Could it be that we are who we love? Could it be that we are who we show up for? Existentially and spiritually, of course. It doesn’t mean we all have to do WHAT Ruth did in order to be fully human or fully who God made us to be. Ruth, as a book and a person, reveals to us God’s design of our core being. God’s design of our humanity could easily be described as Ubuntu. God did not leave the first human alone. God did not leave God’s own self alone, creating humanity in God’s own reflection. The very character of God could even be described as Ubuntu! Hear now these words of Ubuntu.

But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

Sabbatical Reflection 1 – Showing Up

One of the very first lessons imparted to me by a mentor in ministry was simple: Show Up. Show up for your congregation. Show up for your colleagues. Show up for your friends. Show up for social justice. I could keep going, but I think you get the point. It seems simple, but like most things, showing up becomes complicated.
Our city (and country) is deeply divided by race and class. This is no new reality. Shouting voices on television and social media encourage us to live more separated lives. It is difficult to overcome. Yet, we know that division is not God’s will. As people who live in the way of Jesus, we are called to build bridges and develop relationships, reclaiming what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. named as the ‘beloved community.’ Scripture calls it God’s reign. The first step is showing up. Since I cannot ask our community to do something that I have not done myself, showing up became an urgent call for the sabbatical.

During June, July and August, I worshipped at Pine Street Christian Church, our historic African American Disciples congregation in Tulsa. Prior to visiting Pine Street, I worked hard not to create any expectations of what the time would be like. Yes, I wanted to begin building a relationship. But, no one owed me a relationship simply because of my intent. In my study of African American experiences and my black friends’ testimonies, it is clear that we white people can have good intentions, but not always be truly sensitive to the experiences of African Americans and the multi-faceted reality of racism. People of color often have deep wounds created by well-intentioned white people. I carried this with me, knowing that I too have “stepped-in-it” and hurt someone unintentionally before in my life. My prayer was that when it happens, I will be able to hear with gratitude the truth shared with me and see the bravery it takes to share it. It continues to be my prayer.

As I prayed my way to worship that first Sunday morning, I asked God to teach me whatever I needed to learn. As usual, God provided in spades, because the people of Pine Street are ready to respond to the world with love and mercy. Before going, I did not let anyone there know I was coming. Much like at Bethany, though, once you walk through the doors, there is no staying incognito. Not only was I warmly welcomed, Rev. Brenda Denson called me forward to sit on the chancel! It was a humbling experience being welcomed this way. Each Sunday, Rev. Denson’s sermons spoke to my personal struggles of faith in a way that felt like she could see right into my soul. That, of course, was startling, and a balm to my heart.

Hmmm, at once startling and a balm to my heart? God sure does know how to make this journey of faith interesting. This summer’s sabbatical was just the beginning. Showing up is not a one time action, but a way of being. If we seek to see a more equitable and just city, it is our work to do. If we believe that God’s love is for everyone, we are called to build relationships that share love in a way that defy our world’s divisions. Let’s show up and see what God has in store. 

Can you join me this Sunday, September 15 at 3:30 pm for a worship service at Pine Street Christian Church? Meet me at church at 3 if you would like to carpool. Prepare to be back at church around 6.